I’ve always been irritated by journalists who take a proprietary approach to stories and sources, treating people and events as if they somehow belong to the scribe who first happened upon them. My personal feeling is that a reporter can no more claim a news event than a scientist can claim – oh, I don’t know – the orbit of the moon around the Earth.
That noted, however, I do believe that a good journalist has an obligation to cite sources, whether said journalist is proud of those sources, or not. It’s not only good journalism (readers and viewers have a right to know how a journalist has obtained information, so long as that information won’t harm a source), but it is also – quite frankly – a sign of graciousness. And I’m quite big on graciousness
Now, it’s no secret that many journalists – especially those with (ahem) reputable, major news sources – are reluctant to admit that they read blogs, much less use them as sources for stories. For whatever reason, many such journalists cling tight to the image of the lone collector of information, out on the frontier, receiving scratchy phone calls and unmarked envelopes from dangerous characters desperate to have their stories told. But, speaking as a journalist, and as a journalist friendly with several other journalists: that’s just not how journalists operate.
Case in point.
On October 24 a good friend associated with the scrap metal industry forwarded to me a two-page letter describing the alleged kidnapping of a British scrap metal trader (with London-based Gold Arrow) by a state-owned company in Ningbo. I made several phone calls to confirm the truth of the document and then, at 9:45 AM (Beijing time), October 25, I posted the letter to Shanghai Scrap, along with some background information on the market circumstances contributing to the incident. At the time I posted it, I fully expected other news organizations to pick up the story – as well they should.
Because it was posted on a weekend, the post received very little traffic until Monday, when Danwei linked to it. Meanwhile, Metal Bulletin and RecyclingBizz ran stories on the two-page letter (I know that it was sent to both organizations), and several other blogs began to cover the incident. However, no other blog or news source (including Metal Bulletin and RecyclingBizz) published the actual two-page letter, though several have quoted it.
The traffic was high enough that I decided to check out the geographic source of the hits (ie, who’s more interested in a scrap metal kidnapping story – China or the UK?). They were coming from everywhere. However, in addition to quite a few hits coming out of Ningbo (home of the kidnappers), I also noticed repeat visits from two IP addresses associated with Reuters.
So it was no surprise when, on October 31, Reuters correspondent Lucy Hornby filed a widely-circulated story describing the alleged kidnapping and providing market background information quite similar to what was described in my original post. This is as it should be: Hornby covers commodities, and the alleged kidnapping is a very good, very flashy kind of commodities story. However, Hornby’s account of the alleged kidnapping didn’t really diverge from the one described in the two-page letter that I posted two days earlier. Which brings me to this passage, from the third paragraph of Hornby’s dispatch (bold added by me):
According to a letter from Goldarrow seen by Reuters, James Xu, a representative of its client Ningbo Yibao, detained Srivastav at the Ningbo Sheraton after quarrelling at a container terminal over the contents of an earlier scrap shipment.
What, pray tell, is the point of mysteriously claiming that the Goldarrow letter was “seen by Reuters” when a simple google search for, say, “Goldarrow + kidnapping” would have taken her directly to the letter as posted on Shanghai Scrap (from October 25 – 31, the top google search result for those terms … right up until Reuters posted Hornby’s story)? For that matter, the letter is still available for anyone to click and see. Obviously, there’s a bit more glamour – if not professional panache – in obliquely suggesting that the letter was viewed in, say, a back alley, as opposed to admitting that it was found via a link from Danwei to Shanghai Scrap. That is, Hornby could have either called such letter “widely circulated” or been gracious enough to acknowledge that a blog had posted the news – and the document – fully six days before she and her news organization did.
But then, that would have entailed admitting that Reuters reporters read – much less, source – from blogs.
[With a shout-out to Drudge, Patron, er, Saint of bloggers who scoop the Big Boys.]
[UPDATE: A correspondent writes to ask why I’m calling out Reuters when the FT also ran a Gold Arrow kidnapping story on the 31st. Two reasons: first, the FT reporter does not use the fatuous and highly misleading “seen by Reuters” construction to explain his sourcing; second, the FT report, unlike the Reuters report, is filled with new reporting that adds substantially to what we know about this incident. Big difference.]