Getting stories right used to be more important than getting the scoop. Maybe it’s time to return to careful, skeptical and dispassionate reporting.
Four jockeys on horseback. (Credit: Jupiterimages)
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In September 1961, Reuters reporter Gerry Ratzin waited with a pack of journalists at an airport in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, for the highly anticipated arrival of the United Nations chief, Dag Hammarskjöld, who was coming to mediate an end to civil strife in the British protectorate.
A man wearing a hat like Hammarskjöld’s trademark fedora disembarked. Assuming the man was Hammarskjöld, some of the journalists hastily reported that he had arrived safely. Ratzin held back and waited.
After a nail-biting night with no news of the UN chief, Ratzin used a roadside telephone box to call the Rhodesian government information officer, who told Ratzin that the DC-6 carrying Hammarskjöld had crashed.
Ratzin had risked being last to report Hammarskjöld’s arrival, but he turned out to be first with the shocking news the UN chief had died.
The best reporting requires both speed and accuracy. But an inaccurate report, no matter how fast, is worthless. Only a correct report stands the test of time.
Balancing scoops with skepticism
I cut my teeth as a reporter with the Reuters news agency in the analog era, before the internet. Government officials and companies depended on news wires and major newspapers to interact with the world.
There was no Twitter, Instagram or TikTok for communicating with markets, voters or fans.
Given the flood of information that passed through us before reaching the public, we enjoyed countless scoops. But with every scoop came the frightening possibility of getting it wrong. So we put a lot of emphasis on sourcing — as did Ratzin, who waited to file his story until he had an official source.
Today, the news ecosystem seems a wild free-for-all. Journalists rush out stories based on rumors, speculation and make-believe sources, nurturing conspiracy theories and sometimes peddling outright lies.
But the best journalists resist rushing to judgment or jumping on a bandwagon and are skeptical of easy explanations. They also look for both sides of a story.
The political pendulum swings between extremes.
In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected U.S. president. Like millions of Americans, my children were elated. They believed that by voting a Black man into the White House, the United States had turned a page on racism.
I, too, was happy, but my journalistic instincts kicked in. “That was the easy part,” I told my children. “Now the work begins. Obama has his work cut out for him.”
As a reporter I’d seen the political pendulum swing from one extreme to another. I’d watched as center-right regimes that had rebuilt France, Italy and Japan crumbled after World War Two. While I was posted in India, the Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indrira Gandhi all but disintegrated before my eyes. I sensed there were elements in the U.S. Republican Party that harbored racial resentment towards Obama and that they would double down on revenge.
To my puzzled children, I was a killjoy. The uninitiated often misconstrue skepticism as cynicism. As a U.S. citizen, I was happy Obama won. But as a journalist, I glimpsed the adversarial forces and his difficulties ahead.
The dispassionate approach applied to everything we did at Reuters. Newspaper reporters wrote that the stock market had a “good day” if share prices rose; at Reuters we knew better. For every investor betting on a rising market, there was a short seller hoping to see prices fall; for every company that saw its share price rise, there was a competitor who may not have fared so well. If the price of a commodity rose, it could benefit producers, but consumers could suffer.
The glass was always half full and half empty; for every winner, there was a loser. The challenge for a reporter was to see the whole picture and not let emotions obscure the landscape.
A dispassionate approach to reporting
My most interesting balancing act was in Malaysia covering Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a despot who threw his political rival — Anwar Ibrahim — in jail in 1998 and had him charged with trumped-up sex crimes.
It could have been easy to despise Mahathir. He was a populist who whipped up support by excoriating the West while pocketing money from foreign investors keen to make a buck in the Southeast Asian tiger economy.
Anwar was the darling of the West. With his background working in Washington, he was comfortable briefing foreign correspondents and whispering nasty things about Mahathir.
But there was another side of the story. Mahathir was the father of modern Malaysia, where Malays, Chinese and Indians, different from one another in so many ways, miraculously co-existed. Not many journalists get the chance to meet a modern-day George Washington. I was able to interview Mahathir twice, and each time I was filled with a mixture of revulsion and admiration.
I spent hours with Anwar, often with his wife and daughter in the background, and felt his pain. But I also saw the glint of ambition in his eye.
When Mahathir and Anwar patched up a quarter of a century after I had left a riven Malaysia, I was only partly surprised to see such bitter rivals as bedfellows. The political pendulum never stops swinging.
Accuracy and verification should not be a fashion trend.
The dispassionate, even-handed approach at Reuters had its benefits. Policymakers and corporate kingpins could count on us to play it straight and fair, and so they often turned to us to divulge news.
Those who controlled information knew we would appreciate an exclusive handout and give it proper play — and do so in a jiffy. Reuters was the world’s biggest news organization when I worked there, and politicians, business chiefs and thought leaders around the world treated its correspondents with respect.
Three decades into the digital era, it’s a lot harder to play by the rules that prevailed when I joined Reuters in June 1986.
With constant news streaming, speed of reporting is valued above all else. And with polarized politics, there’s a push for journalism that takes sides.
Donald Trump’s innumerable lies and the U.S. Republican Party’s embrace of conspiracy theories mean the carefully-sourced and neatly neutral stance that characterized our political reporting is a thing of the past. The news industry crossed a line after Trump’s victory in 2016 by — quite correctly — calling him a liar.
Still, I’m hopeful. Neither the GOP nor the Democratic Party will be quite the same a decade from now. At some point, like wide neck ties and narrow lapels, the principles we stood by — accuracy, balance, expertise, a global perspective — are bound to come back into fashion.
It would be premature to pronounce those values dead, even in a news industry still struggling to survive the challenges of the digital age and to capitalize on its opportunities. The pendulum will keep swinging.
This article is adapted from a chapter in the author’s memoirs, currently being written.
Questions to consider:
- Why might getting a story first be a problem?
- What is one way of verifying that something you think is true actually is?
- What was the author’s approach when he reported on opposing politicians in Malaysia?
Nelson Graves is founder and president of News Decoder. An experienced educator and administrator, Graves was a correspondent, bureau chief and regional managing editor at Reuters for 24 years, holding posts in Washington, Paris, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Milan and Tokyo. He later served as admissions director at Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program in international relations in Italy.
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