London, Asharq Al-Awsat—One question all news junkies ask is: where have I seen this item before? The origin of a news story, its trajectory across the global media, and its eventual fade from view are part of the excitement that it relays.
Those who browse the Arab media must have asked that question the other day when many newspapers, especially in Egypt and Lebanon, highlighted a story about a statement by Sheikh Yussef Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian theologian closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the statement, relayed through an amateur video, the sheikh, who also chairs the Fatwa Council of the European Union, commented on the new-fangled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its “Caliph” Abubakar Al-Baghdadi.
He revealed that Baghdadi had been a member of the Brotherhood but had later “deviated,” presumably from the right path. Among the first people to receive a copy of the video was Asharq Al-Awsat’s senior correspondent Mohammed Al-Shafey. Thus it was no surprise that this newspaper became the first to run a story, written by Shafey, on Qaradawi’s decision to lambast ISIS and Baghdadi.
The trouble was that the many Arab news outlets that took the story from Asharq Al-Awsat decided not to mention this paper as the source or Shafey as the writer. In contrast, a number of Western news agencies correctly sourced their versions of the same story. Since this is not intended as a “name-and-shame” exercise, we don’t need to name the specific outlets that simply “lifted” the story and passed it off as their own.
In a sense, all journalists are fascinated by the prospect of making a “scoop,” an English word that originally meant a thick spoon used to extract ice cream or other frozen food substances. In its journalistic sense it means running a news story that other media outlets have either missed or failed to secure. The term was popularized with the novel Scoop by British master of satire Evelyn Waugh. In the novel, a young aspiring writer is mistaken for his cousin, a famous novelist, and sent to a fictitious African country to cover a war.
Accidentally, he runs into a scoop and starts dreaming of stardom. On return to London, however, he finds out that the credit has gone to his cousin and that he is forced to return to his mundane existence.
Citing sources is necessary, not only as a matter of journalistic ethics, but also for a number of practical reasons. For example, if the source is a reputable newspaper and/or a well-respected reporter, the story that one has picked up would gain more authority by naming it. In contrast, if the source is unknown, little-known, or of doubtful authenticity, citing it is a warning to the reader that a pinch of salt may be necessary. In fact, those who practice disinformation often use new outlets they have set up for the purpose of providing a source for whatever is produced by their propaganda machine. Citing a source is also good precaution against hostile legal action. Some sources, such as parliaments and courts of law, are protected which means that a reporter could cite whatever is said in them with impunity. Quoting other sources would make it clear at the outset, if any malice or libel is detected, it did not come from the news outlet that quoted the story.
In the jargon of the old Fleet Street, those who lift other people’s stories and pass them off as their own are called “jackals.” This is because the jackal often feeds on carcasses left behind by a lion after the “King of the Jungle” has dined on lesser animals.
To be sure, not all “scoops” are obtained in the same way. Often, a scoop is the reward of mere serendipity, with the reporter simply happening to be in the right place at the right time. One classic example is the scoop by Le Monde’s star reporter Eric Rouleau about Gamal Abdul-Nasser’s decision to close the labor camps his regime had set up in Egypt.
In his fascinating memoirs, Rouleau tells us that Nasser had decided to do so anyway and that the presence of a foreign reporter provided an opportunity to publicize his intention in an indirect way.
Some scoops are spoon-fed to reporters. A classic example is the Watergate saga, in which a group of officials within the US administration wanted to destroy Richard Nixon’s presidency by feeding information about his campaign’s misdeeds during the presidential election of 1972. The two Washington Post reporters who relayed the information drip by drip became legends in their own lifetime. In reality, however, they had been cynically manipulated all along.
A scoop could also come when a reporter bends the rules to some extent. One example, also in the 1970s, is the revelation by leading Washington columnist George Will of a sensational decision by President Jimmy Carter. Where did Will get the information? Carter claimed that the journalist had been called to the Oval Office and while there had stolen a glance at a letter exposed on the presidential desk while the president was on the telephone. Will, of course, denied it.
Sometimes the scoop comes because of a newspaper’s position in a special context. For example, during the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina this newspaper received an exclusive “cry for help” from President Ali Izetbegovic. The term made a front-page headline and was taken up by hundreds of other media outlets. The Bosnian Muslim leader wanted to relay a message through what he regarded as the leading Arab daily.
During the Yemeni civil war of the 1994, the leaders of both sides gave exclusive interviews to this newspaper. Again it was the paper’s position and prestige that produced the scoops. In contrast, leaders of the civil war in Nicaragua, for example, would not give exclusives to Asharq Al-Awsat but to the daily Clarin, the leading Argentine newspaper.
Obviously, no newspaper could consist entirely of scoops and, if it did, it would not perform its function to the full. A scoop is often the cherry on top, adding color and zest to broader news coverage. In the long run, the reputation of a newspaper, indeed of any medium, is built slowly and over a long time through professional coverage of events based on an established deontology.
Under such a deontology, when one takes up someone else’s scoop one cites the source, a gesture tantamount to raising one’s hat in recognition of a job well-done.