Back in journalism school, one of my teachers put the class through a simulated process of editing a breaking news story for a multi-edition newspaper. A story would be written and edited, then new details emerge and get corrected, forcing a rewrite, and then the process would repeat itself.
I thought the exercise was a bit silly. I didn’t think real newspapers would function in such a way. As it turns out from five years working at a real, multi-edition newspaper, the exercise was surprisingly accurate.
Working as the late sports editor on Monday night, I went through this process with a relatively minor story.
Guy Boucher is the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, which is the farm team of the Canadiens. The Bulldogs play in the American Hockey League, and its players are routinely called up to Montreal to fill in for injured players.
There was a report that Boucher had gotten an offer to jump to the big leagues (even though he’d spent only a year with the Bulldogs, his first professional hockey team), becoming the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. On Monday came word that Boucher had turned down that offer.
Since the Bulldogs are related to the Canadiens, and Boucher is considered one of the candidates to replace Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin if he’s ever fired or quits (we don’t suspect either is imminent), this story was going to become the lead brief in Tuesday’s paper.
As the night went on, we received news from the Columbus Dispatch that the Blue Jackets had gone with their second choice, Manitoba Moose coach Scott Arniel. The brief had to be rewritten (it started off with “The Columbus Blue Jackets are still looking for a new head coach…”), but that was easily accomplished before first edition.
At 10:59 p.m. Monday night, about a half hour after first edition, Rue Frontenac’s Martin Leclerc published a scoop that Boucher had accepted an offer to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It referred to three unnamed sources as confirming the news.
This news spread quickly, even at this late hour. A post on Habs Inside/Out was updated to reflect the new news, crediting Rue Frontenac. Habs-crazy broadcasters RDS and CKAC were reporting it, also offering credit where it was due.
Ironically, I learned about the story through a Canwest News Service report, also quoting Rue Frontenac. A Gazette editor later called to make sure I was aware of it.
Again, the brief had to be torn up and rewritten, starting with the latest news, but including the rest. (At this point there are three stories merged into one – Boucher turning down Columbus, Columbus hiring Arniel, and Boucher going to Tampa Bay.) An online story was also put together, crediting and linking to the Rue Frontenac report.
Few things are as embarrassing to a journalist – and a journalism organization – than having to admit you’ve been scooped. Because the report doesn’t list its sources – and because it’s late at night when usual sources are unavailable – there’s no way to independently verify the report. There’s no choice, really, you have to credit the news organization that broke the story. Otherwise, you’re putting your organization’s own reputation on the line if the story turns out to be false. It doesn’t matter how respected the other organization is, if they’re your only source you have to say so.
The multiplication of unnamed sources
Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Rue Frontenac is the website published by locked-out workers of the Journal de Montréal, a Quebecor publication. To say there’s animosity between these two publications is putting it mildly. There appears to be a policy at Quebecor’s news outlets that the term “Rue Frontenac” is never mentioned, even when they put out a scoop like this.
But Quebecor, the Journal and its Agence QMI couldn’t ignore the story and let everyone else report it. So while RDS, CKAC and The Gazette prominently referenced Rue Frontenac, an Agence QMI story referred to “certaines sources”. A different Agence QMI story credits the Tampa Bay Tribune for the scoop.
Except when you look at the Tampa Bay Tribune story, it credits “Montreal sports television outlet RDS”. And RDS, you’ll recall, credits Rue Frontenac.
Later in the night, TSN managed to get what seemed like a confirmation on the story. But by then, many news stories were already referring to “multiple sources” (say, “RDS and CKAC are reporting…”), even though all those sources led back to the same source.
That’s a journalistically dangerous problem when it comes to these kinds of reports. Improper sourcing leads to the impression that news outlets have gotten independent verification of a story, which leads to more news outlets reporting on it with increasingly vague sourcing. Eventually everyone is reporting it because everyone else is reporting it, and it becomes common knowledge. Readers, viewers and listeners are left with the impression that everyone has verified the report, when in fact it’s just one guy who’s said something on the Internet.
In this case, it seems the story was true, so all the news outlets win their gamble. Nobody has to make any apologies for getting it wrong (and Quebecor doesn’t have to say it relied on a report from its own locked-out journalist while refusing to credit him).
The next time this happens, they might not get so lucky.