Reuters Rues Its Referendum: High Standards and High-Level Hearsay

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“Exit polls give victory to Chávez in referendum”: The
Folha de S. Paulo front page on the day after. Also: “Corininthians [football club] [banished to the second-division.]” One of which is actually a reliable, and, we believe, regrettable, fact.

International news agencies publish news passed along by third parties without checking them against the original source of the news, especially at heated moments such as elections. –Ricardo Kaufman (Brazil), coverage postmortem on the Venezulean referendum

Why we are taking heat in Venezuela: The Web log of the Reuters Editors explains how it, too, called the Venezuelan referendum wrong.

Compare:

For several hours before official results of Sunday’s referendum were released, Reuters reported senior government sources saying that Chavez was winning a vote that would allow him to contest elections for life and enshrine socialism as a state priority in the constitution. The sources were impeccable, including three cabinet ministers who had been correct in the past and who cited exit polls and early returns. The ministers told us Chavez was ahead by a hefty 6-8 points. An independent source also told us we were on the right track. But they were proved wrong. Chavez was defeated.

Irate letters:

We’ve received many emails accusing us of a breach of trust, of favouritism and of incompetence. You’ll find a selection on the blog where we post reader comment.

What our mistake was not:

Our mistake was not in using sources to get a beat on the story. We followed our own sourcing rules properly. We made clear that our sources were linked to the government and that we had talked to several senior figures. We specified where they said they had their information from.

Where they said they got their information from?

Did you check that information independently? Maybe try to get someone to actually fax you the exit polling in question?

Maybe Reuter’s sourcing rules ought to specify that primary sources are to be preferred to hearsay, and that hearsay should not be run until corroborated. “Trust,” as Ronald Reagan said, “but verify.”

What the Reuters handbook does specify is this:

Two sources are always better than one. Seek at least one source from each side.

Perhaps the fundamentally erroneous assumption here is that there are two, and only two, sides to every issue.

We also made strenuous efforts to get the opposition’s point of view. But for a couple of hours we were unable to get them to comment. For some readers that left the impression that Reuters backed the government’s interpretation of events.

As the story developed and opposition conviction grew that the government’s numbers were wrong, we were slow to give the change the attention it merited. Some other news organizations emphasised that the vote was too close to call. In retrospect, it was an approach we should have taken.

We have provided comprehensive and distinguished coverage of the referendum, one of the most important stories in recent months in Latin America. We believe our reporting has been balanced and fair. Our stories strive to explain clearly why Chavez is loved and loathed in equal measure.

Once again, Reuters seems to take a rather Manichaean view of life, the universe and everything.

Is there no one who is simply indifferent to, or lukewarm or ambivalent about, the Bolivarian Blowhard?

I know I am.

But then again, I don’t count.

I am not a Venezuelan voter.

But I bet there are.

The referendum results might even be interpreted as confirming that theory.

I read some pretty persuasive after-the-fact analysis according to which the “ni … ni …” (neither-nor) vote played a pretty decisive role in the outcome.

We erred in this one instance, not from favouritism towards the Chavez government, but because we fell away from the high standards we set ourselves.

Really?

How high are those standards Reuters sets for itself?

If uncorroborated hearsay is supposed to be an example of “high standards” for the sourcing of the information you report?

Just because they guy is a cabinet minister, he could not possibly be (1) mistaken, (2) engaged in wishful thinking, or (3) bullshitting you.

What ever happened to “If your mama says she loves you, check it out”?

Whatever happened to “Never disbelieve anything it has been leaked on background by government officials”?

Why does the “verify or knock down on a priority basis” priniciple Reuters applies to market rumors in its business coverage not also apply to this case, for example?

The manual (p. 346, “Reporting Rumors”):

Reuters aims to report the facts, not rumours. Clients rely on us to differentiate between fact and rumour and our reputation rests partly on that. There are, however, times when rumours affect financial markets and we have a duty to tell readers why a market is moving and to try to track down the rumour – to verify it or knock it down.

Part of this duty is to honestly report that you do not actually know something from firsthand knowledge, and that you are still working to confirm it:

… general news desks and correspondents must make every effort to verify or knock down the report as fast as possible at the appropriate priority.

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