Covering breaking news from inside one’s own publication is tricky business.
Last week, when Reuters deputy social media editor Matthew Keys was indicted by the Justice Department for “conspiring with members of the hacker group ‘Anonymous’ to hack into and alter a Tribune Company website,” the media company faced the problem head-on.
After the Huffington Post broke the story, which was promptly picked up by a variety of news organizations, Reuters posted a short item online and excerpted the indictment. The following day, Friday, Reuters journalists Joseph Menn and Dan Levine wrote a longer story about the indictment, updating it multiple times throughout the day.
Just like those at every other news organization, the reporters couldn’t get a comment from Mr. Keys himself (at that time, a Reuters employee) and had to rely on the power-tweeter’s Twitter feed.
“Keys did not respond to requests for comment,” the story read. “But several hours after the indictment was handed down, he tweeted: ‘I found out the same way most of you did: From Twitter. Tonight I’m going to take a break. Tomorrow, business as usual.’ His attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.”
A Thomson Reuters spokesman gave the Reuters reporters a statement that was worded similarly to those given to other outlets, noting that the “indictment alleges the conduct occurred in December 2010; Mr. Keys joined Reuters in 2012.”
The Reuters spokesman refused to comment on Mr. Keys’s employment status, but the article said that “a Thomson Reuters employee at the New York office where Keys worked said that his work station was being dismantled and that his security pass had been deactivated.”
Some clever tweeters pointed out the absurdity of relying on an unnamed colleague in the New York office to provide eyewitness details about Mr. Keys’s workstation in lieu of a definitive comment from the company’s spokesperson, but it did demonstrate some amount of editorial independence, both real and perceived.
Off the Record called Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, who said that self-coverage policies vary, but are generally easier to track at newspapers than in broadcast. Mr. Naureckas suggested we look at the Times, which made its policy more transparent after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal.
(“Generally we’re careful to let readers know if a news story has some significant link to the Times or to someone who works here,” Philip B. Corbett, The New York Times’s standards editor, said in an email.)
In some ways, the lack of inside information given to the Reuters reporters indicates the challenge of sourcing, regardless of whether the request comes from inside or outside one’s own organization. Of course, the access given to colleagues—even far-flung colleagues based in San Francisco, as the reporters who wrote the story are—would presumably be better than that given to those outside the organization.
Later on Friday evening, the company did comment for its own reporters, in an article time-stamped 5:28 p.m. “David Girardin confirmed Keys’ suspension on Friday but declined additional comment,” the piece read. Looks like it wasn’t really business as usual, despite what Mr. Keys tweeted.
The article didn’t note a disclosure, presumably because it would have been superfluous to note that a Reuters employee was, indeed, a Reuters employee.
Reuters isn’t the only organization grappling with how to cover its own appearance in a potential Department of Justice scandal. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that The Wall Street Journal was the subject of a DoJ investigation into allegations that the Journal’s Chinese bureau has bribed Chinese officials in exchange for information used in news articles. However, a search by Dow Jones, which publishes the Journal, found “no evidence to support the claim.”
“After a thorough review of our operations in China conducted by outside lawyers and auditors, we have not found any evidence of impropriety at Dow Jones,” Dow Jones spokeswoman Paula Keve said in a written statement to the Journal.
According to the article, there was “a whistleblower who claimed one or more Journal employees had provided gifts to Chinese government officials in exchange for information, according to people familiar with the case.” While neither the Journal nor News Corp. knows the identity of the whistle-blower, the piece reported that News Corp. told the Justice Department that it suspects he or she could be an agent of the Chinese government acting in retaliation for the Journal’s reporting on China.
The Journal also noted that it doesn’t know what evidence News Corp. higher-ups have for that suspicion, adding that “reporters for this article couldn’t independently verify [the claim].” The theory that there is something afoot isn’t implausible, especially after The New York Times and other publications were targeted by Chinese hackers after reporting unfavorably on Chinese leadership. Still, it would seem that independently verifying said claim wouldn’t be impossible.
But unlike Reuters, the Journal did break the story itself—a canny PR move.
Phew! If media coverage can veer toward the insider-y, then media coverage of media coverage might just make your head spin.
CORRECTION: The photo caption originally stated that Mr. Keys was a “former” Reuters employee. In fact, he is a current Reuters employee who has been suspended.