AP to offer two different leads for the same story

March 21, 2005

[Note by Tom Gross]

This is a follow-up to AFP, AP, CNN: Where the reporting stops (January 24, 2005) and other previous dispatches about AP and Reuters on this email list.

The Editor and Publisher (one of America's leading journals covering the newspaper industry) reports that The Associated Press will soon offer editors two alternative lead paragraphs for many news stories.

As I have mentioned several times in the past, news outlets are increasingly cutting back (mainly for budgetary reasons) on foreign reporters, photographers and TV cameramen. As a result they are coming to rely more and more on the three big news agencies (AP, Reuters and AFP) for their news and pictures.

1700 newspapers subscribe to AP. Many regularly insert AP and Reuters reporting into their own news stories without revealing the source was AP or Reuters to readers.

The fact that AP will run two leads may in future make it more apparent what the political slant of a newspaper's policies are.

"The concept is simple: On major spot stories we will provide you with two versions to choose between," the AP said in an advisory to members. "One will be the traditional 'straight lead' that leads with the main facts of what took place. The other will be the 'optional,' an alternative approach that attempts to draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means."

Interestingly, the example given is not of some neutral story, say a sports match, but concerns the Middle East.

The "almost as if scripted" in the second example is being viewed by some media commentators as a confirmation that many journalists have their own bad-news script in reporting on Iraq.

AP "TRADITIONAL" LEAD:

MOSUL, Iraq (AP)--A suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners Thursday, splattering blood and body parts over rows of overturned white plastic chairs. The attack, which killed 47 and wounded more than 100, came as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad said they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government.

AP "OPTIONAL" LEAD:

MOSUL, Iraq (AP)--Yet again, almost as if scripted, a day of hope for a new, democratic Iraq turned into a day of tears as a bloody insurgent attack undercut a political step forward. On Thursday, just as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad were telling reporters that they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government, a suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners in the northern city of Mosul.

 



TRADITIONAL VS OPTIONAL

The example (above) cited by Editor and Publisher is (unsurprisingly) not very contentious.

But it is not difficult to speculate what AP might actually have in mind when it speaks of applying "creative means". In future we may see these kind of choices:

Traditional: Today, a Palestinian activist blew up an Israeli schoolbus killing 18 children...

Optional: 18 children passed away in Israel today...

Traditional: No reporter has yet been able to verify claims by Saeb Erekat that 3000 Palestinians had gone missing in Jenin...

Optional: I stood appalled before the hundreds upon thousands of bodies piled high in Jenin...

The Editor & Publisher also says that "the AP stressed that the optional leads will not be available to the news service's Internet providers. They are designed strictly for print."

Some commentators believe that in the wake of the forced resignation of CBS anchorman Dan Rather, this may be an attempt by AP to try and marginalize its critics on the Internet, by making sure the print media say one thing, while Internet outlets say another, and therefore (in the words of one journalist who subscribes to this email list) "making it that much more difficult to link to and track down their bias."

Below, I attach the article from The Editor and Publisher (followed by an article I wrote on Reuters last summer for the National Review, for those who are new to this email list).

-- Tom Gross

 


FULL ARTICLES

AP REVEALS ITS DOUBLE STANDARDS

New on the Wire: AP to Offer Two Leads for Some Stories
The Editor and Publisher
By Joe Strupp
March 16, 2005

www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000844185

Attention Associated Press members, prepare to get more for your money: Now available, two leads for the price of one.

In a break with tradition at the 156-year-old news cooperative, the AP will now offer two different leads for many of its news stories, the organization confirmed Wednesday.

"The concept is simple: On major spot stories especially when events happen early in the day we will provide you with two versions to choose between," the AP said in an advisory to members. "One will be the traditional 'straight lead' that leads with the main facts of what took place. The other will be the 'optional,' an alternative approach that attempts to draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means."

The advisory added that the change is an attempt to "enhance the value of the AP news report to your newspaper." The AP serves about 1,700 members.

AP officials said the optional leads have already begun to appear in some sports stories and on the national news wires during the past two months. The new initiative is in response to requests from many editors who want to be able to offer readers "something fresh so they will want to pick up the newspaper and read a story, even though the facts have been splashed all over the Web and widely broadcast."

"Many newspaper wire desks don't have the resources for a lot of heavy lifting on our copy," AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman said about the need for built-in options. "They would like our help in giving the reader something different from what is posted on the Web."

The AP stressed that the optional leads will not be available to the news service's Internet providers. They are designed strictly for print.

"This is not an attempt to turn a hard news story into a feature," the advisory said. "We will still present the main facts of what happened in the top few grafs of the optional. Following the alternative lead, the story will typically pick up into the body of the traditional lead."

AP officials said the optional leads will not be on every story, just those of high interest that are breaking as spot news.

"Big, big breaking spot stories," Silverman added. "We are not setting quotas or promising that it will be every story. The idea is to do it as often as we think the story warrants and if we can do it well."

An example of the differing leads:

Traditional

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) A suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners Thursday, splattering blood and body parts over rows of overturned white plastic chairs. The attack, which killed 47 and wounded more than 100, came as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad said they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government.

Optional

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) Yet again, almost as if scripted, a day of hope for a new, democratic Iraq turned into a day of tears as a bloody insurgent attack undercut a political step forward.

On Thursday, just as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad were telling reporters that they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government, a suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners in the northern city of Mosul.

 

THE CASE OF REUTERS

The Case of Reuters. A news agency that will not call a terrorist a terrorist.
By Tom Gross
The National Review,
July 26, 2004

www.nationalreview.com/issue/gross200407120846.asp

Many people still think of Reuters as the Rolls-Royce of news agencies. Just as the House of Morgan was once synonymous with good banking, Reuters has long been synonymous with good news-gathering. In 1940, there was even a Hollywood film about Paul Julius Reuter, the German-Jewish immigrant to London who as early as 1851 began transmitting stock-market quotes between London and Paris via the new Calais-Dover cable. (Two years earlier he had ingeniously used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels.)

His agency quickly established a reputation in Europe for being the first to report scoops from abroad, such as news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Today, almost every major news outlet in the world subscribes. Operating in 200 cities in 94 countries, Reuters produces text in 19 languages, as well as photos and television footage from around the world.

Though it may report in a largely neutral way on many issues, Reuters's coverage of the Middle East is deeply flawed. It is symptomatic, for instance, that Reuters's global head of news, Stephen Jukes, banned the use of the word "terrorist" to describe the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. Even so, such is the aura still surrounding Reuters that news editors from Los Angeles to Auckland automatically assume that text, photos, and film footage provided by Reuters will be fair and objective. Reuters and Associated Press copy is simply inserted into many correspondents' reports - even in papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post - without, it often seems, so much as a second thought given to its accuracy.

This has led to some misleading reporting from Iraq, and still worse coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newswires are much more influential in setting the news (and hence diplomatic) agenda of that struggle than most people realize.

One veteran American newspaper correspondent in Jerusalem, eager to maintain anonymity so as not to jeopardize relations with his anti-Israel colleagues, points out that "whereas foreign correspondents still write features, they rarely cover the actual breaking news that dominates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In terms of written copy on the conflict, I would estimate that 50 percent of all reporting, and 90 percent of the attitude, is formed by these news agencies. The important thing about Reuters is that it sets the tone, and here spin is everything."

"If, for example, a Reuters headline and introduction say that Israelis killed a Palestinian, instead of saying that a Palestinian gunman was killed as he opened fire on Israeli civilians, this inevitably leaves a different impression of who was attacking, and who defending."

In a study last year, the media watchdog HonestReporting found that in "100 percent of headlines" when Reuters wrote about Israeli acts of violence, Israel was emphasized as the first word; also, an active voice was used, often without explaining that the "victim" may have been a gunman. A typical headline was: "Israeli Troops Shoot Dead Palestinian in W. Bank" (July 3, 2003). By contrast, when Palestinians attacked Israelis (almost always civilians), Reuters usually avoided naming the perpetrator. For example: "New West Bank Shooting Mars Truce" (July 1, 2003). In many cases, the headline was also couched in a passive voice.

Often it is a question of emphasis: Important and relevant information is actually contained in Reuters text, but buried deep down in the story. Many newspaper readers, however, never get beyond the headlines, and for space reasons many papers carry only the first few paragraphs of a report - often inserted into their own correspondents' stories. When the TV networks run only brief headlines, or Reuters news ribbon at the foot of the screen, the full text is never shown.

Sometimes, Reuters presents unreliable information as though it were undoubtedly true. Most people are unlikely to notice this. For example, Reuters will note that "a doctor at the hospital said the injured Palestinian was unarmed" - when in fact the doctor couldn't possibly have known this, since he wasn't present at the gunfight. But because he is a doctor, Reuters is suggesting to readers that his word is necessarily authoritative. Yet, Reuters headlines and text are used unchanged by newspaper editors because they assume it is professional, balanced copy, which doesn't need any further editing.

Reporters of course can't be everywhere at once. The increased speed of the Internet and the demand for instant, 24-hour TV news coverage means that the world's news outlets rely heavily on Reuters and the AP, which in turn rely on a network of local Palestinian "stringers." Virtually all breaking news (and much of the non-breaking news) on CNN, the BBC, Fox, and other networks comes from these stringers.

Such stringers are hired for speed, to save money (there is no need to pay drivers and translators), and for their local knowledge. But in many cases, in hiring them, their connections to Arafat's regime and Hamas count for more than their journalistic abilities. All too often the information they provide, and the supposed eyewitnesses they interview, are undependable. Yet, because of Reuters's prestige, American and international news outlets simply take their copy as fact. Thus non-massacres become massacres; death tolls are exaggerated; and gunmen are written about as if they were civilians.

As Ehud Ya'ari, Israeli television's foremost expert on Palestinian affairs, put it: "The vast majority of information of every type coming out of the area is being filtered through Palestinian eyes. Cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army's actions and never focus on Palestinian gunmen. Written reports focus on the Palestinian version of events. And even those Palestinians who don't support the intifada dare not show or describe anything embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority, for fear they may provoke the wrath of Arafat's security forces."

One Palestinian journalist told me that "the worst the Israelis can do is take away our press cards. But if we irritate Arafat, or Hamas, you don't know who might be waiting in your kitchen when you come home at night."

Some of Reuters's Palestinian stringers are honest and courageous. But, according to several ex-Reuters staffers, they feel the intimidating presence of Wafa Amr, Reuters's "Senior Palestinian Correspondent." Amr - who is a cousin of former Palestinian minister Nabil Amr, and whose father is said to be close to Arafat - had this title specially created for her (there is no "Senior Israeli Correspondent," or the equivalent in any other Arab country) so that her close ties to the Palestinian Authority could be exploited.

As one former Reuters journalist put it: "She occupies this position in spite of lacking a basic command of English grammar. The information passed through her is controlled, orchestrated. Reuters would never allow Israeli government propaganda to be fed into its reports in this way. Indeed, stories exposing Israeli misdeeds are a favorite of Reuters. Amr has never had an expose on Arafat, or his Al-Aqsa Brigades terror group."

But things may well be improving. Lately, with a new Jerusalem bureau chief, Reuters has taken some steps to ensure greater balance. For example, it no longer claims Hamas's goal is merely "to set up an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza" (which it is not), but instead writes that Hamas is "sworn to Israel's destruction" (which it is).

Reuters no longer carries the highly misleading "death tolls" at the end of each story that lumped together Palestinian civilians, gunmen, and suicide bombers. (Agence France-Presse continues to do this.) And, apparently, there are plans to relocate Wafa Amr by next year. Is it too much to hope that one day soon Reuters might actually call terrorism terrorism?


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.