GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

News scoops, sources, producers, consumers

Posted by George J Janczyn on January 19, 2010

Two local news editors of publications I follow recently exchanged tweets that touched on the issue of competition for stories. One editor took the position that stories aren’t owned; rather each publication tells part of the bigger picture. The other editor responded, does that mean you’ll tell me what [reporter’s name] is working on right now?

This got me thinking how that competitive tension can affect the reader. Certainly all news publications seek to be first with important stories and to stand out as having the best coverage. But sometimes that impulse leads to the suppression of information the reader could use. It may be they’ll hide the fact they’re working on a certain story so they can get a scoop, or perhaps they won’t reveal sources for which they invested considerable effort. They may feel that monopolizing information will help secure more readers willing to pay subscription fees or make donations. This tension probably helps energize news reporting to some degree, but too often it’s at the expense of the reader.

For me, one of the more frustrating things about what appears in news reports is the seeming policy against citing sources or acknowledging competitors or linking to related stories (a notable local exception, Voice of San Diego links to “competing” news stories as in this example).

Stories without links to sources or other related information force readers to take everything at face value.

Here’s an example from KPBS, “Judge’s Ruling Could Limit San Diego’s Water Supply.” Just enough information to tease an uncomfortable feeling in the reader, but nothing of real substance, no mention of the Quantification Settlement Agreement behind the issue or explanation of its purpose in allocating water among western states, even misspelling the judge’s name (it’s Roland). Or this story about an “allegedly savage drug gang boss” (allegedly savage?) with no citations for assertions made.

SignOnSanDiego ran a story that briefly described a bust of what seemed to be an major identity theft operation in San Diego but omitted details, names of defendents, and case information. The story’s writer did not respond to my email query for those details. Unexpectedly I found a television news report that provided a much more informative report. Here’s another article that’s typical…it discusses a new report from the city’s pension system without linking to the report (VoSD does) — instead it makes links for “San Diego,” “Donna Frye,” “Jerry Sanders,” “the Great Depression,” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Useless links, too, because they only lead to a list of articles containing those names/terms! Links to “earthquakes,” “wind,” or “prisoners” would have been as helpful. It sort of gives new meaning to the technical term “symbolic link.”

They gave you a story, what more could you want?

I can excuse the absence of links to sources and additional information in print publications but not the withholding of important data in the online edition. Online I expect lots of links to sources. On that front I once wrote to the U-T to complain that they ran as their own a story that VoSD broke a week earlier and got a response that “we do news, not investigative reporting!” Blogs and blog-like news sources, especially technical ones, have been much better in this regard, but at least some local news outfits extend attribution to online journalism and are alert to other ways to improve the online reader’s experience. That’s a good thing.

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