The Psychology of Scooping

Jul 10 2012 @ 4:02pm

After reading SCOTUSblog's "tick-tock" of the Obamacare ruling coverage, Amy Sullivan has had it with the race to be first:

I know I’m often out-of-the-loop when it comes to journalism norms and conventions, but this one honestly confounds me. Has any publication ever received a Pulitzer for being the first to report a major announcement? Is there some secret reward at stake—free cookies for a year? A trip to Hawaii? Do colleagues buy you a drink to congratulate you on beating the other networks by ten seconds? Because if this is just about bragging rights, it needs to stop. Now. And not just because it can lead to some outlets rushing to report incorrect information, as CNN and FOX did with the recent Supreme Court decision on health care reform. But because the race to be first is no longer just a feature of news coverage but often the main factor driving it.

Yes, she is out of the loop. Of course getting there first in news matters – news, Amy, news, does the adjective ring any bells? The whole point of journalism is to get there first and be accurate. The tension between the two creates the profession. And Sullivan wants to remove one? Ack. Charlie Warzel rounded up reactions to her piece. Friend of the Dish, Ben Smith, tried to keep it practical:

Scoops matter, in part, because they are typically a product of being deeply sourced in your beat, and good beat reporters get them almost as a by-product of good beat reporting. Being first to report the Supreme Court ruling isn't a scoop, technically — it's just a matter of conveying information accurately and efficiently, which is also our job. Bloomberg deserves credit for being right and first. That isn't easy, as other outlets showed. This doesn't mean great explanatory reporting — or for that matter, great poetry — don't matter. That's a false choice. But often the great explanatory reporting comes from people whose deep connection to their beat also gives them a steady stream of scoops.

After the ACA ruling, Jeff Jarvis offered a different theory:

The real lesson here is that the scoop is and always has been a dangerous act of journalistic narcissism. Did it truly matter if one outlet “broke” the same information that other outlets — and the world of the internet — knew a second before another? Or was it indeed worse when those outlets got it wrong because they were hasty and stupid? They were still seduced by the scoop, which has no value in media that operates at the speed of the link. Journalists must think how they can best add value to information, not how they can most rapidly repeat it. Explaining the story is adding value. Getting it wrong detracts value and devalues credibility.

Alexandra Petri took a wider view:

Certain kinds of news are impossible to break to anyone. Big Events Happening In Real Time. These days, some of the people are watching all of the time. We are all watching the same things through slightly different windows, some affording more colorful views than others. Breaking News may be broken, but it’s not cracked so much as it is splintered into thousands of smaller pieces. And some of those splinters — Scotusblog, Bloomberg, to name just two — actually manage to get the news right the first time around.

Meanwhile on Twitter: