Reuters Kills Story : What are the ethical issues?

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iMediaEthics has written before on correcting stories, retracting them, or in the online world, sometimes making them disappear. But it is also a question of ethics when a publication decides to kill a story before publication.

Killing a flawed or erroneous story or one that broke the rules of ethical journalism is a good move. But what if a story is held back from publication not in the public’s interest, but in violation of their right to know? This is the question asked of a Reuters story held from publication last month, written by investigative reporter Matthew Goldstein on hedge fund trader Steven Cohen, who is the founder of hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors.

According to Gawker, in a conference call last week, Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger said the piece was fair enough to be published. Quoting the call, Gawker writes,

When Reuters media reporter Robert MacMillan asked his boss what actually happened, and what was wrong with the story, Schlesinger immediately became testy, and bizarrely seemed to say that there wasn’t anything wrong with it: “We’re not going to do news editing by plebiscite…so I’m not going to go into the details of it. The story could have run. I mean, it was not a bad story. It could have run. But I had questions about it.”

(An edited partial recording of the call is available with the Gawker story.)

Talking Biz News reported at the time that the story was killed “after Cohen complained to top Thomson Reuters executives that he was being persecuted by the news agency’s reporting.” Asking a subject for comment or corrections on a story is undoubtedly the right procedure here. It gives the reporter a chance to fact check, and allows a subject to respond in their own words to possible criticism. But, what happens if the response is a negative one?

In this case, as in others, it depends on the story itself. Cohen had a right to argue the story was persecutory. But the decision to kill it must rest on the facts of the piece, and whether the reporting was ethical, not on whether he felt it cast him in a bad light.

According to Talking Biz’s Chris Roush, “After Goldstein contacted Cohen for the pro forma no comment before the story ran, Cohen repeatedly called Devin Wenig, CEO of the Thomson Reuters markets division and the No. 2 executive at Thomson Reuters, to complain about the story… Wenig passed on the complaints to Reuters Editor in Chief David Schlesinger, who asked editors to look into them. Reuters editors debated the story for three days before finally killing it.”

But, Roush writes, “Goldstein’s story was based on documents, and was approved by Reuters lawyers.” Gawker transcribes some of Schlesinger’s conference with staff on the story, pulling out this exchange:

UNIDENTIFIED REUTERS EMPLOYEE: People involved with the story said that every point was covered with documents, and was actually backed up with paper.

SCHLESINGER: There was nothing wrong with the reporting.

UNIDENTIFIED REUTERS EMPLOYEE: Then why was the story killed?

SCHLESINGER: Because we don’t write every story that we have a document about.

If the story was, in fact, document-based and approved by lawyers, the editorial decision to kill it appears to have been based at least partly on Goldstein’s displeasure. This also comes soon after Reuters signaled it might be focusing on more investigative or enterprising business reporting.

Last week, Reuters editor Jack Reerink made fun of the whole situation in a letter sent to editorial staff members. Talking Biz published the satirical message, which describes a fictional conversation between Reuters editors and Steven Cohen here. The take away seems to be that the whole thing is a little bit of a joke to him.

Unfortunately, criticism of the situation has been a little deeper than Reerink’s satire. And the question of whether the story should have run or not (regardless of the answer) is certainly not a trivial one.

Of course, the decision to kill a story is not black and white, and it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the feelings of a source should never play into it at all. Other factors, like the newsworthiness of a piece, its timing, and its style may also all play a part. But in this case, because the story was document-based and originally approved by editors and lawyers, the editors’ decision to spike Goldstein’s piece seems at least suspect.

While killing a story is always at first a question of accuracy and integrity in reporting, this case for Reuters has also become one of the credibility of the editorial process, and the independence of the organization.

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Reuters Kills Matthew Goldstein’s Story on Hedge Fund Trader Steven Cohen: What are the ethical issues?

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