Attention Editor items and Hoaxes

Contents

Attention Editor Items

Reuters reporters and sub-editors need to be keenly aware of potential reputational and legal issues – in part because of our underlying commitment to fairness and balance. Bureaus should send stories with potential legal concerns to the relevant desk with the words ATTENTION EDITOR in the slug and an accompanying message explaining the perceived risks. Such stories should be handled by a regional specialist editor or the senior desk editor on duty.

Once a legally sensitive story has been edited, the editor should loop in Alix Freedman and our in-house lawyers, Gail Gove and Katharine Larsen.

The following are examples of the sort of stories that may need to be flagged ATTENTION EDITOR: bankruptcy stories, civil lawsuits, contentious claims, allegations of wrongdoing, graphic details, obscenities, sensational stories, stories about Reuters, and stories that need to be withdrawn. This is not an exhaustive list.

Bankruptcy stories

Bankruptcy stories should be slugged ATTENTION EDITOR. Be very careful when using adjectives to describe a company. A company becomes formally bankrupt or insolvent when a court rules it is unable to meet its debts. The ruling may be sought either by the company concerned (voluntary) or by creditors. Any story about a potential bankruptcy report from a third party must contain comment from the company concerned or at the very least an indication of serious efforts to seek that comment if unavailable.

In England and some other countries the court appoints an official receiver to manage and eventually realise the debtor’s assets on behalf of the creditors. Terms such as bankruptcy, insolvency and liquidation have different legal meanings in different countries. Be precise in the application of those terms and offer succinct, clear definitions where necessary.

Be as precise as possible in reporting what a company or court says, especially if a translation is involved. For example, in France the normal form of bankruptcy is faillite; the term banqueroute refers to fraudulent bankruptcy. The danger if they are confused is obvious.

A company or individual in the United States is typically designated bankrupt when a court enters an order for relief in either a Chapter 11 or Chapter 7 case. They may become bankrupt by virtue of a voluntary filing on their own behalf or an involuntary filing by a required number of creditors.

Applications made under bankruptcy rules may be technical manoeuvres and could lead to libel actions if misinterpreted. Business collapses are often progressive rather than sudden. Over-colourful reporting that implies the situation is hopeless may lead to legal trouble if the company recovers and claims the reports were false and damaging.


Civil lawsuits

A grave risk exists in reporting threats by an individual, company or organisation to file a lawsuit against another party. In determining whether or not these warrant coverage, we must consider the possible motive of the source and whether we are being used to exert pressure on the other party to reach an out-of-court settlement, thus exposing ourselves to charges of bias and manipulation.

In general, we should avoid reporting a threat of a lawsuit unless one or both parties are sufficiently high profile and the case is sufficiently market moving for us to consider coverage. When this is the case, the story should be filed ATTENTION EDITOR for a decision by a regional specialist editor or deputy on whether it should run. Any story about a lawsuit threatened or real must include comment from both parties. If comment is not immediately available from one party and there is an overriding news reason to run the story, it must make clear what efforts were made to reach the party e.g. “A spokesman for Company X did not respond to two voicemail messages seeking comment.”


Contentious claims, allegations of wrongdoing and vituperative attacks

We can never allow our sources to make allegations, contentious statements or vituperative attacks behind a cloak of anonymity. It weakens our credibility and gives the sources an opportunity to benefit at our expense. It is fundamentally unfair to the other party and thus biased.

If quoting unnamed sources on one side of a conflict about what is happening on the other side, use them only for facts, not opinions. If a source wants to make a vituperative attack on an individual, organisation, company or country he or she must speak on the record. We may waive this rule only if the source is a senior official making a considered policy statement which is obviously newsworthy. A story must make clear both that the informant has volunteered the information and that he or she is an official. If the person will not speak on that basis we should not use the story. Such a story might begin: “Gaul accused Rome on Wednesday of practicing genocide against its ethnic minorities.” The second paragraph would then read something like this: “In news briefing a government official, who declined to be identified, said...”

Even when we have named sources, any story accusing a person or entity of wrongdoing, potentially holding them up to public ridicule or disgrace or accusing them of illicit or immoral activities should be filed ATTENTION EDITOR and must normally carry comment from the other party.

Graphic details, obscenities and blasphemy

As journalists, we have an obligation to convey the reality of what we report accurately, yet a duty to be aware that such material can cause distress, damage the dignity of the individuals concerned or even in some cases so overpower the viewer or reader that a rational understanding of the facts is impaired. We do not sanitise violence, bowdlerise speech or euphemise sex. We should not, however, publish graphic details and obscene or blasphemous language gratuitously or with an intention to titillate or to shock. There must be a valid news reason for running such material and it will usually require a decision by a senior editor. In all cases, we need to consider whether the material is necessary to an understanding of the reality portrayed or described. We should also be mindful that our customers in different markets often have different thresholds and needs. All such stories should be sent ATTENTION EDITOR with an accompanying explanation of why the material has been used. Such material, if published, should be brought to the attention of readers in brackets at the top of the story e.g. (Note strong language in paragraph 6) or (This story contains graphic details in paragraphs 7, 9, 12-14). We spell out expletives. It is then the responsibility of online desks pushing news directly to consumers to deal with the copy appropriately.

Reuters

Any story about Reuters, its staff or its operations should be filed ATTENTION EDITOR. It should normally be written by the senior journalist in the bureau or on the reporting unit and must be cleared for publication by the relevant regional specialist editor. We should seek comment from an authorised company spokesman, who should also be made aware in case of press enquiries.


Scientific and medical breakthroughs and other sensational stories

Stories about major scientific discoveries or medical breakthroughs should be handled with the utmost care, normally by a specialist correspondent or by working with a specialist. If that is not possible, they should be filed ATTENTION EDITOR. Such stories must come from a reputable named source and should be checked with experts for verification. A specialist correspondent is usually best placed to judge the importance and reliability of such studies.

In particular, we should avoid writing about studies conducted in animals, such as mice, or other very early-stage research. There are important exceptions, however, and a health editor or reporter can help assess a study’s newsworthiness. Also, we should determine the credibility of medical journals; some falsely claim to be peer-reviewed and have impressive-sounding affiliations. Keep in mind that companies sometimes hype studies because they can affect stock prices; similarly, universities may tout studies because they want publicity for their faculty. Perhaps most important to remember is that very sick people and their families can get their hopes up and make medical decisions based on supposed news articles. The information in our medical study stories, therefore, should be verified, balanced and tonally sober.

Withdrawals

Any story that has to be withdrawn for any reason should be filed ATTENTION EDITOR with an explanation.

Hoaxes

Do not use news until you are certain of its authenticity. Guard against hoax attempts by being suspicious and checking sources. Would-be hoaxers know screen services have an immediate impact on investments.


Most hoax attempts can be parried by this drill:

  • Regard all information you receive by telephone as suspect unless you know the caller. If you do not know the caller, ask for the person’s full name, title and telephone number. Rather than take it for granted that the name and number are authentic, check such details independently though an organisation’s or company’s switchboard, online searches and other journalistic means.
  • Telephone the person back. Get confirmation that it was indeed that person who telephoned you.
  • Use the same precautions with unsolicited material received by e-mail, fax, instant message, other electronic means, SMS or in the mail.
  • Be on guard against April Fool hoaxes on or around April 1 and all fantasies such as the birth of five-legged sheep, human pregnancies lasting 18 months, the marriage of 100-year-old sweethearts, perfect bridge hands and miracles.
  • Follow the checking procedure even if it means delaying a story until you are sure of its accuracy.
  • Use nothing found on the Internet, even from what appears to be a genuine corporate or institutional site, that is not sourced in a way that you can verify. Many corporate announcements and much economic data are now released online. Reporters need to be familiar with how news sources in their areas of expertise distribute information. Be suspicious of online information that is a complete surprise or appears in an unexpected place. Ask yourself if this is how an organisation normally delivers news? If in doubt confirm information by telephone or other means before you publish it. Capture, save and print a copy of a “screenshot” of the web page in question in order to defend us against charges of printing nonexistent information. If you do not know how to capture a screenshot, ask anyone with a technical bent to show you how.
  • We have no greater protection if we pick up a hoax from a newspaper, a broadcaster or any other third party news organisation. The damage to our reputation from running a hoax is the same and in many jurisdictions we are just as liable under the law.

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