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#ReutersFacts: Thomson Reuters follows editorial safeguards

02/02/2012

At Thomson Reuters, journalists have been encouraged to create “buzz” by promoting stories on social media, but what happened on January 26 can’t be what management had in mind.

That was the day Reuters became a hashtag – and a punchline – on Twitter, the result of inept handling of a story that needed a major overhaul. As has happened before, editorial safeguards that have been in place for decades were disregarded, with disastrous results.

The original story, headlined “Florida’s Rubio a star, but an unlikely VP pick” went out at 6 a.m. EST Thursday morning. The basic thrust was that whoever becomes the Republican presidential nominee probably wouldn’t pick freshman U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, in part because of his personal financial problems. It was written by Miami Bureau Chief David Adams and edited by Washington Editor-at-Large David Lindsey.

A corrected version was edited around 9 a.m., noting two errors, but not putting them in context and explaining what exactly was being corrected, as is Reuters’ long-standing practice. The editor’s note read:

(Corrects to say he failed to pay principal 2008 home payments; changes 2nd mortgage to home equity line of credit.)

Unfortunately, those weren’t the only mistakes in the story, and Rubio’s staff and conservative bloggers noticed, as detailed on The Atlantic Wire:

The mistakes themselves are pretty serious, including but not limited to Reuters reporter David Adams falsely reporting that Rubio missed payments on his house and that he voted against the confirmation of Sonya Sotomayor, an act that would've been impossible since … Rubio wasn't even in the Senate when Sotomayor had her hearing. Reuters details a laundry list of changes to the original copy at the bottom of the piece but stops short of using the word "correction" for any of them.

A subsequent correction came clean in its editor’s note:

(Removes words "and at times has had difficulty paying his mortgage," paragraph 7; removes "he did not make payments on a $100,000-plus student loan" and instead states "he did not pay down the balance of a $100,000-plus student loan," paragraph 10; removes "he was caught up in an Internal Revenue Service Investigation" and instead states "his name surfaced in an Internal Revenue Service investigation," paragraph 12; removes "voted against Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's Supreme Court nominee" and instead states "opposed President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor," paragraph 41; removes "voted against Obama's healthcare overhaul" and instead states "opposed Obama's healthcare overhaul," paragraph 41)

Such a long editor’s note, with such substantial corrections, is extremely rare at Reuters. It is significant that staff raised questions about the story before it ran, and then about the first inadequate correction, but were apparently disregarded.

UNWELCOME NOTORIETY ON TWITTER

And this is where Twitter comes in. Soon after the blogs lit up with this tale, a new hashtag was born: #ReutersFacts. (Hashtags are a way to follow a specific subject in the world of microblogging.) The #ReutersFacts Twitter feed offers such palpable falsehoods as “Marco Rubio started the Spanish Inquisition” and “Marco Rubio is the starting point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves.” So now the Reuters brand, which used to stand for scrupulous accuracy – and full corrections when needed – has become the exact opposite in this cheeky online forum.

All of this has a sickening familiarity. A similar erroneous story, suggesting but not sufficiently demonstrating that billionaire financier George Soros was funding the Occupy Wall Street movement, was rushed onto the wire on October 13. Written, edited and transmitted by managers, the story was based on a flawed premise and probably should have been withdrawn. It wasn’t, and no full correction ever moved to explain what had gone wrong. Veteran staff raised objections that could have saved embarrassment and erosion of the Reuters brand, but they were ignored.

LESSONS LEARNED?

It’s tempting to just try to get past this mess, and hope against hope that it doesn’t happen again. But for all Guild journalists, and for our managers – including some of our newest -- the lesson is that there are checks and balances at this great company, and they are in place to protect us and the company’s reputation for integrity. The fact that the Rubio story was finally corrected is a start in shoring up that reputation. However, this is the second time in a few months that a big story has been hustled out into the world without sufficient review. The Guild stands ready to help in repairing this damage. That is something our members know well how to do.

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