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Why the “scoop” mentality is bad for news

by: Amy Gahran |

August 31, 2011

Why the “scoop” mentality is bad for news

“The scoop” has long been a hallmark of news culture. However, being first on a story usually matters far more to journalists than it does to anyone else.

Scoops can be great, but prizing them blindly skews the priorities of a news organization badly—to the detriment of their audiences, communities, and their own credibility…

By Amy Gahran

Last week I explored how news orgs can help build a healthy local news ecosystem (as well as their own reputation/credibility, and ultimately their long-term business model) by linking out to related coverage by other news organizations.

This practice contradicts ingrained newsroom culture, which typically eschews promoting or even acknowledging work by “the competition” wherever possible.

The scoop is another scion of the competitive news mindset. There are two kinds of scoops:

  • The exclusive. Uncovering a unique story through enterprise; something that probably would otherwise have gone unreported. These scoops are great for everyone. Exclusives broaden the universe of topics covered in the news, and so can enrich public discourse.
  • Being first. Disseminating news of an issue or event before any other news outlet. The classic case is the frenzy among major news orgs to be the “first to call” a presidential election. But it can also mean being the first to report on a polluted site, or a lawsuit, or any definable newsworthy issue. This distinction, I’d argue, has not only ceased to be meaningful—most of the time it’s an outright red herring that damages the quality of news and ill-serves audiences.

The direct risk of the scoop mentality is when news organizations rush to publish information that hasn’t been sufficiently vetted. For instance, several major news organizations falsely reported the death of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the hours after she was shot.

But there’s a more insidious danger to the news ecosystem: The idea that being first to cover a story is sufficient “reward” which negates the need for additional “recognition.” This assumes that the purpose of linking to related coverage is to somehow reward or concede to those authors/publishers, rather than to better serve audiences and communities. That is, over-valuing the time-based scoop can be used to rationalize/justify negative behavior (not linking to related coverage from elsewhere).

This perspective was expressed in a note I got from Nate Seltenrich, a reporter for California’s East Bay Express, and which I quoted in my post last week.

Seltenrich wrote an August feature story for EBX about local urban farming on contaminated properties, which included information on a small brownfield remediation project in Oakland—the same project covered extensively in a June article by Oakland Local, a hyperlocal new startup I co-founded. I asked Seltenrich why his story did not note or link to our coverage or that of the New York Times (which in July also covered the same cleanup project in a story featured on its home page).

He replied, in part: “My story would’ve been the same whether your story existed or not. And either way, you had the scoop, and that’s a feather in your cap.”

The trouble with that logic is: One story, by one news outlet, is rarely enough to cover any topic well. More coverage, as long as it’s done well, is always better.

News audiences have always known this—which is why nearly everyone regularly consults multiple sources of news and information. So when a news organization, by failing to link to related stories elsewhere, persists in conveying the fallacy that theirs is the only or best coverage of a topic, their audience knows this is not true.

Getting caught in a lie, even one of omission, is pretty bad for journalism. It undermines trust.

Furthermore: Unless you’re talking about a true news exclusive, whoever is first to cover a particular story probably doesn’t matter at all to the news audience. So why should that distinction be a “feather in the cap” of any news organization?

As far as I understand it, the goal of a news organization is to serve its audience/community and to sustain itself in that endeavor. “Beating the competition” in terms of timing (rather than enterprise) does little to advance that goal—and in fact, overfocusing on being first can distract news orgs from their true goal.

If the audience doesn’t care who’s first, nobody in the news business can truly win on that basis.

On the other hand, cooperation between news organizations (including cross-linking) does serve communities and can help sustain news venues, as a recent Chicago Community Trust report demonstrates.

News is an ecosystem, and news organizations that prize service-oriented cooperation above blind competition are more likely to thrive and adapt. This shift reinforces the core values of journalism—what we need to change is the benchmarks by which we gauge our success.

The time-based scoop is so 20th century. We should let it go.

UPDATE: Christoph Trappe, product developer and former newspaper journalist, also believes that time-based scoops don’t matter to news audiences. See his July blog post.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 08/31/11 at 4:33 pm

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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