Why Do Reporters Feel They Need To Get A Quote To Report What They Know?

from the journalism-failures dept

Greg David does a nice job highlighting one reason why so many "traditional" journalism offerings are in trouble these days, in discussing why no news reporters seemed willing to point out that Jeff Zucker would surely be moved out of NBC once the Comcast takeover was done. While that news was finally made official recently, before that, the press dutifully reported the claim that Zucker would remain. Yet, as David points out, almost everyone covering the space knew it wasn't true, but they felt they had to report it because they couldn't quote someone to say otherwise, or they might lose access to NBC. After detailing why it was inevitable that Zucker would be tossed, David explains:
Reporters knew all this. Some believed they couldn't write it unless someone told them it would happen. They also knew that if they did write Mr. Zucker was doomed, he might not be accessible to them and he could even shut the NBC Universal door entirely to reporters who angered him.

The end result, of course, is that readers of the NBC stories wonder why the reporters were so wrong about Mr. Zucker's future.

I visited an undergraduate journalism class at Baruch last week and was asked how much advertising pressures affected editorial coverage in my years as editor of Crain's. The answer was hardly at all. Rather, I told the students, reporters self-censor themselves not over concern about advertising but because they want access to companies.

The Zucker story showed that once again that is reporters' interest in access not advertisers who censor the news.
In some ways, though, this is all a damaging circle. They need "access" because that's how they get those meaningless quotes that allow them to say what they know is true, but won't say without a quote. This is partly why I keep trying to explain to PR people that I don't want or care about access to companies in most cases. My posts tend to be me saying what I believe -- and if someone from a company has something important to say, they can say it in the comments. If reporters were more willing to actually say what they know and not worry so much about access (which isn't nearly as valuable as they think), perhaps people would actually trust them a bit more.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 2:17am

    Subject Experts

    Quite correct. Readers expect reporters to be subject experts. If the reporters fulfill that expectation, by being actually knowledgeable and not afraid to show their knowledge, then they will get loyal readers. Those loyal readers are then willing to actually pay for the publication which their favorite reporters work for. Why do the newspaper bosses not get this?

     

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  2.  
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    jmproffitt (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 2:36am

    Where citizen journalism might help

    Having worked with reporters, I saw this, too. It's one of those ethics rules they use, and there are some good reasons for it. One reporter I worked with was the old-school "we're here to tell people the truth whether they like it or not" guys. However, his "truth" was almost exclusively a liberal point of view that wasn't always based in facts or reality, but opinion. So the rules are there to keep reporters in check to some degree.

    That said, I think the problem you point out is valid. And I wonder whether citizen journalists, who aspire to tell a true story, could get around this little problem. They aren't concerned with advertising, so that won't be a self-censoring problem. They may be concerned with access, of course, but if your livelihood doesn't come from journalism, you may be freer to speak the truth, even without quotes.

    Finally, I do have one question: Should we be concerned about whether a reporter is "reporting" or "speculating" in a story? If a reporter "knows" Zucker is outta there, and they say so, isn't that opinion, and therefore not reporting in the classic sense?

    Maybe the classic sense is just that, though... classic, not current.

     

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    Richard (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 2:45am

    I'm a little confused as to why access for reporters is not terribly valuable, but access to creative types is something they can sell?

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 3:48am

    West Coast v East Coast Mentality

    The problem with Zucker's perspective is that he thought he was on a goldmine and wanted to see its the content's value appreciate according to 2006 business models.

    He made a few changes to make his product available, but instead of continuing to offer the product in a consumer-friendly fashion, he probably butted heads with some West Coast programming execs and ultimately West Coast won for reasons which can't be shared here.

    As an olive leaf to West Coast, it's possible that he sent Conan which just didn't work out with West Coast Production Staffers.

    Zucker is on top of what the end consumer wants. He's a supply-chain guy, coming from a background at GE, but I imagine West Coast didn't want to budge. It probably led then to the Comcast Merger, a company who could create and distribute content equally both East Coast and West Coast content.

    It's possible that some would say Zucker may have took the easy way out by shepherding in a Comcast Merger in this reality. Indeed, it's possible that someone at his level contemplated spinning off NBC Westcoast- creating a separate network so it could compete against East Coast content.

    With the Comcast Merger, in many ways he succeed at this.
    There are a lot of things wrong with Los Angeles. Dumb content ideas, political infighting may ultimately result in things like Jay Leno coming out of retirement.

    "I think personally I'd like people to remember me as being creative and innovative, willing to take risks, cared a lot about diversity and created a culture of cooperation and collaboration that's pretty rare in media these days."

    I most genuinely wish him the best.

     

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  5.  
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    Evostick, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 3:51am

    Reporters vs columnists

    Columnists can offer opinions and quotes. Their opinions may be incorrect but their quotes should not be.

    Reporters (should) only report facts. If someone says something, then that is a fact and therefore reportable.

    News and opinion should be separate, otherwise the reader cannot be sure what part of the stories are facts. Reporters and columnists should remain separate.

    If a reporter said what he thought then the facts become less trustworthy as they are more likely to be shaped to fit the agenda of the reporter (now columnist).

    Your article states "almost everyone covering the space knew it wasn't true". How did they know this? That is what should be reported.

    [Access to news sources is a separate topic on which I am not commenting]

     

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    Wabbit (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 5:39am

    Re: Reporters vs columnists

    "News and opinion should be separate, otherwise the reader cannot be sure what part of the stories are facts."

    Readers and viewers don't necessarily care about the difference between facts and opinion. Look at how popular Fox News is.

     

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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 5:43am

    I know how it started

    It started because news reporters weren't suppose to give their opinions. They were suppose to be completely impartial, just reporting the news. The idea that they aren't allowed to report anything without an outside source is just a leftover remnant from a time long past. Now it's mostly used so the owners can't be sued by something incorrect being reported.

    Writing that reminded me of a billboard down the hill from my houses. It said "Making and breaking the news". I knew what they were trying to say, but the first time I saw it I thought "finally, truth in advertising".

     

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    FarSide (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 5:46am

    Re: Reporters vs columnists

    So if a reporter finds something out by research, but no one says it to them, it's not a "fact" and they can't report it?

    I hear reporters all the time say things like "Some are speculating that..."

    If you report an opinion as a fact, that is bad. If you report that someone has an opinion, that is a fact. And thus they can report on it if they believe there is any merit to it.

    And that's my opinion, as a matter of fact.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 5:48am

    if i say Mike Masnick, is retiring I am starting a rumor.

    if i have a quote of someone saying that then im just reporting what info i managed to gather.

    this is just a question of taking responsibility, by having a quote said reporters shift any responsibility to whom ever said it, if they don't have a quote or other supporting facts then they have to be responsible to what they are saying.

     

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  10.  
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    Evostick, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 5:59am

    Re: Re: Reporters vs columnists

    If a reporter finds something out by research then where are they getting this research from? Paper documents, online archives, video clips, other people or themselves? The reporter should be able to cite their sources (publishing those sources is a whole other topic).

    A reporter could quote themselves and give their opinion, but then they become a commentator. Nothing wrong with that, but they are no longer a reporter.

     

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  11.  
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    Evostick, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 6:01am

    Re: Re: Reporters vs columnists

    Some care (probably those not watching Fox news)

     

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  12.  
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    Danny, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 7:14am

    Its butt covering

    The reason they do that is for the ability to cover their butts if something goes wrong. If a reporter finds evidence that Colin Powell is running for president in some other form than someone saying it directly then there is room for the possibility of error. If said reporter goes with a President Powell story and it later turns out its not true then:

    1. With a quote the reporter has someone they can point the finger straight at and say, "Don't look at me I got it from ____."

    2. Without a quote even if the reporter originally stated that it was a not confirmed ("Evidence is pointing to Colin Powell possibly making a run for the White House." They aren't saying its happen just that there is a rumor.) if it turns out to not be true that then reporter will lose a bit of face and people will lose faith in that reporter.

     

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    ethorad (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 7:34am

    Not all reports are afraid of losing access

    In the UK, Sir Alex Ferguson (manager of Manchester United, who you've probably heard of on the other side of the pond) hasn't give any interviews to the BBC since 2004. Reason being he took offence to a documentary they did about his son who was working as a football agent.

    Of course, the documentary team who caused the loss of access are separate to the sports team who were hit with it. Plus it is in the Premier League contracts that he has to give interviews to the broadcast rights holders (something that was tightened up especially to try and force him to end his boycott) and so the club is now being threatened with fines.

    http://thefc100.wordpress.com/2010/08/21/ferguson-vs-the-bbc-round-two-fight/

    http://ww w.guardian.co.uk/football/2010/aug/22/alex-ferguson-premier-league-bbc

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 7:43am

    This is why govt imposed competitive advantages (in media and elsewhere) need to be abolished.

     

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  15.  
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    crade (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 8:02am

    Re:

    Reporters can have devoted fans who might good money pay to have dinner with them and hear their opinions (or whatever) too.
    They obviously can't depend on everyone they ever want to report on being a fan of theirs to get access to them though.

    Access to creative types won't be valuable to everyone, that is why you need to "connect with fans".

    Is that what you are asking?

     

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  16.  
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    Stuart (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 8:32am

    Re: Re: Reporters vs columnists

    Look at all the "News" organizations. Or do you believe that those that slant the way you agree with are not slanted?
    I have always disliked the stupid. Though those that point out how stupid people are on one side of the fence while doing the exact thing on the other side are held in a special place. You are an idiot.

     

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  17.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 8:33am

    Re:

    I'm a little confused as to why access for reporters is not terribly valuable, but access to creative types is something they can sell?

    Two totally different things.

    In the reporting context, we're talking about access to sources that the reporter can use as a part of their job.

    For entertainers, we're talking about how much fans value access.

     

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  18.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Sep 29th, 2010 @ 8:36am

    Re: Reporters vs columnists

    News and opinion should be separate, otherwise the reader cannot be sure what part of the stories are facts. Reporters and columnists should remain separate.

    How condescending to readers. Why do you think they should be kept separate? It seems like an artificial construct that makes little sense.

    Your article states "almost everyone covering the space knew it wasn't true". How did they know this? That is what should be reported.

    Because it's how the business works, and reporting otherwise was being a lot less than truthful. In your quest for avoiding an "agenda," all of those reporters had an agenda, which was to mislead the public about Zucker's ultimate role.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 9:19am

    Re:

    Fans want access because it's something meaningful to them.

    Reporters want access because they think that's how you get respect, fame and the big bucks.

    Reporters who sell their souls for access and quotes are treated like parrots working a 9-5, and fans are treated like tools for sucking up to a band.

    But at the end of the day, the fans got exactly what they wanted, and the reporters...don't.

    If a reporter wants to become a success, they need an opinion. Just ask John Stewart or Glenn Beck. Whatever you're thoughts on either of them is, they are far more famous and rich than any reporter clawing for "access".

     

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  20.  
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    Jon Healey, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 10:42am

    Re: Re: Reporters vs columnists

    There are few news beats as competitive as the entertainment industry. Folks are constantly publishing things based on speculation that taps their "subject matter expertise." So the fact that you didn't see a lot of stories saying, "Sources say Zucker will be out as soon as Comcast takes over" indicates pretty strongly that real industry insiders *weren't* saying that. Corporate intrigue is hard to predict, especially when folks like Zucker are involved. So it smacks of 20-20 hindsight to argue that reporters should have been saying Zucker was a goner long ago. Beyond that, why is the wisdom of the reporting pack valuable to readers? Shouldn't folks be more interested in what people at the top of Comcast were thinking about Zucker?

    Your advice to news writers also seems to ignore the persistent criticism that too much speculation and "analysis" creep into supposedly straight news stories. Look at the latest Gallup poll -- distrust of the news media is hitting new highs, with more than half of those surveyed saying the press is too liberal. Injecting personal opinions into news coverage helps that how?

    IMHO, the solution isn't to have news reporters include their own speculation into coverage. It's to be way more transparent -- e.g., by providing documents and using fewer anonymous sources.

     

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  21.  
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    Evostick, Sep 29th, 2010 @ 10:44am

    Re: Re: Reporters vs columnists

    I'm not being condescending, I'm just giving my (and I don't believe I am alone) definition of what a reporter does.
    Nor is the distinction between reporter and commentator artificial. One delivers facts, the other delivers opinion and facts.

    There is a difference between
    "X signed the document"
    and
    "[It is my opinion that] X signed the document"
    If I am reading a commentator then I have to consider the bracketed statement.

    You think that reporters should deliver opinion too. Fine, but that makes them commentators/columnists/bloggers and their reputation as a reporter is lost (thought they gain reputation as a columnist).

    You failed to answer my point about how almost everyone covering the space knew it wasn't true. Was there some evidence to point to this (fact), or could it be worked out by reasoning (opinion).

     

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  22.  
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    mike rice (profile), Sep 30th, 2010 @ 4:42am

    Zucker and Access

    The problem with the press is that it doesn't report what it knows anymore.

     

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  23.  
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    Roderick T. Long, Sep 30th, 2010 @ 7:44am

    Law Reviews Too

    The refusal to make any assertion not backed up by a quote prevails in law reviews too. A friend of mine once submitted an article to a law review in which he remarked in passing that fraud was immoral; the editors demanded a citation! (So he, y'know, found someone else who said fraud was immoral, and footnoted him -- and now the claim was acceptably sourced.)

     

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  24.  
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    ethorad (profile), Sep 30th, 2010 @ 8:53am

    Re: Zucker and Access

    Or that they report on what they don't know ...

    Good old Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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