In the wake of considerable screw-ups by CNN and Fox News Thursday in misreporting the substance of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, author, journalism professor and media blogger Jeff Jarvis wrote a blog post titled “The scoop is dead and deserves to be.”
Not so fast.
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.
Jarvis is exactly right with his point that being the first to report universally available information has scant value in the digital age — especially if you get it wrong. But Jarvis errs in using too broad a definition of what, in fact, constitutes a scoop, a term that is not interchangeable with “breaking news.”
Scoops are often breaking news, but not all breaking news is the result of a scoop. Watergate, for example, was a scoop: Through dogged reporting, The Washington Post broke the story of the cover-up behind the break-in. The My Lai massacre story was a scoop: Seymour Hersh dug into reports that U.S. troops had killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, and broke the story via The Associated Press wire. Abu Ghraib was a scoop: CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and Hersh (again, this time for The New Yorker) fleshed out reports that U.S. soldiers had abused prisoners in their custody at the prison in Iraq, and broke the story.
Those are scoops: tracking down sources, sifting through documents and data, digging up facts and reporting exclusive stories. Announcing news everyone knows is coming nine seconds before your competitors isn’t a scoop.
Semantics? Maybe, but journalists work in words, and their meanings matter.