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Delaying News in the Era of the Internet
June 23, 2008 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Wikipedia Updater Fired For Scooping NBC on Tim Russert's Death -- "When Tim Russert collapsed ten days ago, his colleagues at NBC held off reporting the news for almost two hours so his family wouldn't hear about it from the media....The news appeared on Wikipedia 40 minutes before the NBC report, with all of the verbs in Tim's entry changed from present tense to past. It appeared on the New York Times's web site 5 minutes before the NBC story. It zipped around Twitter all afternoon. According to the New York Times, the person who updated the Wikipedia entry 40 minutes before NBC reported it worked at Internet Broadcasting Services, a company that provides web services to TV stations including NBC affiliates."

"IBS says a 'junior-level employee' changed the Wikipedia entry to reflect Russert's death because he or she thought it was common knowledge. When NBC discovered the entry--and freaked out about it--someone else at IBS deleted the date of Russert's death and changed all of the verb tenses back. And then IBS took care of the employee.
'An I.B.S. spokeswoman...added that the company had 'taken the necessary measures with the employee and apologized to NBC.' NBC News said it was told the employee was fired.'"
posted by ericb (75 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
"If the employee learned the news because NBC was officially distributing it to affiliates under embargo, that's one thing (the firing would be appropriate). If the employee heard about it unofficially, however, from friends at NBC or I.B.S., then the firing was outrageous. [UPDATE: An NBC exec disputes the NYT report, and says the IBS employee was merely suspended, temporarily. We'll update if we can confirm].

It's one thing for a news organization to decide to delay reporting news of a staffer's death out of deference to his or her family (this makes sense). It's another for the organization to expect other organizations to follow the same policy. And it is yet another thing for someone to deliberately strike accurate facts from a collective record to appease an upset client, which is what someone at IBS apparently did."*
posted by ericb at 2:28 PM on June 23, 2008


It's a sign of how out of touch NBC is that they think anyone noticed this, or cares who was 40 minutes first.
posted by rokusan at 2:31 PM on June 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Wow, that's seriously fucked up... Do you think NBC would 'hold off' on the publication of someone else's death? (Or I don't know, maybe they would, I know they probably do in the case of soldiers, but what about 'ordinary' celebrities)?
posted by delmoi at 2:32 PM on June 23, 2008


Dateline: "To Catch an Editor"
posted by mazola at 2:33 PM on June 23, 2008 [20 favorites]


First!
posted by Artw at 2:33 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


"NBC also asked other TV networks to hold off reporting it, which they apparently agreed to do. A decade ago, when TV and radio had a lock on real-time news dissemination, this cozy arrangement might have stopped the news from spreading. In this day and age, of course, it didn't."*
posted by ericb at 2:34 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


here is the (first) actual edit about his death. The Vandalism that had been deleted a couple of days prior is kinda funny.
posted by delmoi at 2:37 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


When NBC discovered the entry--and freaked out about it--someone else at IBS deleted the date of Russert's death and changed all of the verb tenses back.

This is the problem - that a news organization decided to deliberately conceal the truth from a public record outside of their ownership and control because it didn't suit their interest. Even if the employee was wrong to have posted the information, it was also wrong of NBC to hide the truth.

The media needs to learn that it's job is to report the story, not control the story. They also need to learn that all their talking heads, buildings, cameras, and studios are beyond irrelevant at this point. You got scooped by a non-profit website. And it's going to happen again, more and more frequently.

Granted this is a sensitive matter relating to the death of one of their own, but I wonder if NBC News were working for months on an investigative report, and someone posted the facts of the story to wikipedia a day in advance of their airing their report, would NBC feel comfortable deleting that story from wikipedia just to preserve their scoop?
posted by Pastabagel at 2:39 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


If I employed someone with enough time on their hands to change verb tenses on Wikipedia during the work day, I'd question their future employment regardless of what article they're editing.
posted by loquax at 2:42 PM on June 23, 2008 [10 favorites]


It never fails to surprise me how quickly breaking news makes it to Wikipedia.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:42 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Did the wikipedia folks purge the edit/reversion-to-not-dead from the history, or am I missing something else? I see the edit-to-dead and a followup metadata edit, and then nothing for six days.
posted by cortex at 2:46 PM on June 23, 2008


This is the problem - that a news organization decided to deliberately conceal the truth from a public record outside of their ownership and control because it didn't suit their interest. Even if the employee was wrong to have posted the information, it was also wrong of NBC to hide the truth.

Actually, those edits would have been made in disagreement with Wikipedia policy as original research and unverifiable without another media source to back it up. IBS did the right thing by Wikipedia standards by reverting. See Fred Saberhagen's death for an extreme example.
posted by mkb at 2:46 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


So Tim Russert was briefly undead?
posted by kirkaracha at 2:46 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ah. The problem is that I am a nut. He died on the 13th, not the 7th.
posted by cortex at 2:47 PM on June 23, 2008


It never fails to surprise me how quickly breaking news makes it to Wikipedia.

They wrote about Harold Crick's death before it even happened!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:47 PM on June 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Do you think NBC would 'hold off' on the publication of someone else's death? (Or I don't know, maybe they would, I know they probably do in the case of soldiers, but what about 'ordinary' celebrities)?

Yes, news organizations commonly do this, and generally refuse to name/identify anyone dead until the next of kin has been notified.
posted by Miko at 2:49 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm kinda surprised that NBC hasn't edited out the reference to this incident from the "Reaction to Tim Russert's death" entry on Wikipedia.
posted by Poolio at 2:53 PM on June 23, 2008


Neither Wikipedia nor IBS is a news outlet. The larger problem is why someone would take a death report on Wikipedia at face value.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:55 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Holding off a report for 40 minutes to ensure notification of the family is not as sinister as some of you are making it out to be. Seriously, if he was your family, would you rather get a personal phone call or hear some windbag on tv mention it between commercial breaks?
posted by gyusan at 2:57 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


this pissed me off big time when I first read it on nyt.com and I hope the 'junior employee' didn't actually get fired.

if they fired him ... well, I hope he's going to give interviews.
posted by krautland at 3:00 PM on June 23, 2008


Additionally, since Wikipedia disallows editing if you're running through a Tor node, the employee would have to try other methods for anonymization.

Unlogged edits were just begging for abuse, and certainly it's entertaining to read when a company has been found to be fluffing its own entries, but it's a shame that this would dampen the enthusiasm of various contributors. It's not quite whistleblowing level of importance, and I don't have a clear solution in mind yet, but something about the whole situation makes me uncomfortable.
posted by adipocere at 3:02 PM on June 23, 2008


Apparently, mentioning the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia itself is considered "masturbatory".
posted by stbalbach at 3:07 PM on June 23, 2008


It never fails to surprise me how quickly breaking news is deleted from Wikipedia.
posted by stbalbach at 3:09 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've been "mentioning the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia itself" for years now, and I haven't gone blind yet.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:11 PM on June 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


It never fails to surprise me how quickly breaking news makes it to Wikipedia.

Breaking news on WP is an unsourced rumor until the same information is released through actual news outlets. If this information was "released early" on Wikipedia, it was "untrue" and rightfully up for deletion -- vandalism, as a worst case -- until NBC actually corroborated it with an official announcement.

If the goal of firing the IBS employee was to punish him for risk of family members being prematurely informed of Mr. Russert's death, why would those family members have looked to Wikipedia for this information in the first place? Why would any other media outlet risk taking an unsourced rumor on WP seriously, just to get a "scoop"?

Any other major "reputable" media outlet wouldn't have a scoop since they can't corroborate it themselves, presumably without their editors going through the NBC editorial staff, out of common courtesy, which would in any case have resulted in them holding off on the story. The family would still have heard about it first from NBC privately.

It is easy enough to report the (fake) death of any given celebrity on WP. Why a posting on Wikipedia is taken seriously enough to get someone fired is utterly mystifying.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:14 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


In general I can see wanting to wait to ensure that the next of kin was notified in a dignified manner, but beyond that, if you are a traditional media outlet and you are getting upset that you are getting scooped by the internet, get used to it.
posted by quin at 3:14 PM on June 23, 2008


A very senior and able PR practioner I worked with in London still tells the story of when he first started for a local newspaper as a junior and was sent by the editor to get a quote from the widow of a prominant local man who had been killed overseas.

He walked to the house and knocked on the door, the widow answered - he stammered his junior reporter question asking her reaction to her husband's death and her face froze and jaw drop. She didn't know her husband of 20 years was dead.

This was a deeply traumatic experience for my collueague and I would imagine the recent widower too; I'm not saying he should be fired, but imagine if it was a member of your family you found out about on the news.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 3:19 PM on June 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


Why a posting on Wikipedia is taken seriously enough to get someone fired is utterly mystifying.

The post itself was harmless, maybe 5 people saw it. The damage was the aftermath embarrassment when it become known NBC leaked the story. Someone at the highest levels in NBC had to do something. Choices include:

1. Do nothing
2. Reprimand (no bonus, salary freeze, demotion)
3. Fire

Only option number 3 would be newsworth, so in the "war of headlines", it was really the best option to take.
posted by stbalbach at 3:23 PM on June 23, 2008


Is this standard practice for all major media outlets? I mean does NBC regularly wait to announce the news of someone's death until family members are informed? I'm guessing that they don't, and whilst I can only imagine how traumatic it must be to hear news of a loved one's death on the TV, this does look like a double standard. If the person that posted the news on wikipedia had no idea about the media blackout, then it's hardly fair to fire them.
posted by ob at 3:26 PM on June 23, 2008


It's not like NBC and other networks/wire services/other slowtards haven't ever mocked up (easily discovered) webpages to cover imminent/unlikely/outlandish events.

And he was delicious!
posted by WolfDaddy at 3:26 PM on June 23, 2008


I guess it is newsworthy that the web was only 40 minutes ahead of broadcast media, instead of the usual 40 hours.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:29 PM on June 23, 2008


I mean does NBC regularly wait to announce the news of someone's death until family members are informed?

This is an unusual circumstance in that the reason NBC knew of Russert's death before anyone else is that he died while at work. In this case, NBC is not the news gathering agency, but the employer. The equivalent would be if you died at work and an underling there called the local news station before your boss had a chance to call your family.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:33 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


This was a deeply traumatic experience for my collueague and I would imagine the recent widower too; I'm not saying he should be fired, but imagine if it was a member of your family you found out about on the news.

Sure, but if I saw that my famous loved one had died on Wikipedia I'd just blow it off as the work of random trolls.
posted by delmoi at 3:56 PM on June 23, 2008


...before your boss had a chance to call your family.

How long does that take, usually?
posted by Balisong at 4:09 PM on June 23, 2008


In this case, NBC is not the news gathering agency, but the employer.

Fair enough. Still firing the person if they had no idea about a blackout seems a little extreme.
posted by ob at 4:14 PM on June 23, 2008


his colleagues at NBC held off reporting the news for almost two hours so his family wouldn't hear about it from the media.

I would rather hear about my wife's death by seeing it on the news than I would by being told by her sobbing mother. It would actually be a much easier way to learn about a loved one's death. And if my wife died, I would much rather everyone else see it on the news than have to deal with making all those incredibly awkward and painful phone calls.

But maybe that's just me.
posted by flarbuse at 4:14 PM on June 23, 2008


Wait a minute... Am I to assume that the NYT published something based entirely on a Wikipedia entry?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:15 PM on June 23, 2008


IBS says a 'junior-level employee' changed the Wikipedia entry to reflect Russert's death

I just can't believe that anyone getting paid to be a journalist would waste time updating Wikipedia. The first rule of freelance writing, for example, is to get paid for what you write. The IBS junior-level employee is obviously an idiot.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:29 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


No longer will we be weighed down by politeness and human sentiment; hail expedience, hail collective, hail internet!
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:57 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can't believe anyone would call a company IBS.
posted by smackfu at 5:16 PM on June 23, 2008


I can't believe anyone would call a company IBS.

In which case, it might interest you to know that there's a prominent property-management company here in Toronto called the WTF Group.
posted by bicyclefish at 5:23 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


> Still firing the person if they had no idea about a blackout seems a little extreme.

Since IBS is a service provider for news companies, they're presumably subject to the same agreements of confidentiality and competition as any other technical service provider. Or in other words, they're not allowed to reveal their clients' secrets. It's routine for news sources or intermediaries to embargo news for any number of reasons, shady and otherwise -- when, 20 years ago, Reuters stopped respecting the New England Journal of Medicine's embargo on news reports about its pending publications, the NEJM's rationale for the embargo is respectable, whether or not you agree with the embargo: ' Dr. Arnold S. Relman, editor of The Journal, said yesterday that Reuters would be ''irresponsible'' to release information ahead of the embargo because physicians would not have time to receive copies of The Journal and could not knowledgeably respond to the inquiries of patients.'

The reason for embargoing Tim Russert's death can be debated, but essentially ISB breached their contract and presumably sacrificed the employee to appease a client. The same thing is likely to happen any other time a vendor violates their client's nondisclosure agreement. NBC's business is in delivering the news and it can't allow its vendors to scoop it. This takes an additional edge since the employee at ISB not only managed to violate NBC's trust but did so regarding one of its own senior members, ensuring that the people most upset by this are the ones at the top.
posted by ardgedee at 5:26 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


The family was in Italy and had to be contacted first. It's called "the decent thing to do".

I hope that contractor is blackballed.

And what a perfect name for that inane thing: "TWIT-ter".

"I'm eating a sandwich."

"My feet hurt."

"Tim Russert just dropped dead."

"I'm sitting in Starbucks."
posted by Zambrano at 5:40 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Neither Wikipedia nor IBS is a news outlet.

Some might say the same of NBC. <rimshot/>
posted by furtive at 6:02 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of this depends on what the person was actually employed to do. If she worked there handling confidential content for clients and leaked that out, that's a disciplinary offence, really it is. Lots of people handle such material, not just in journalism, and they have to keep their mouths shut about it. Leaking confidential stuff always gets you investigated, whatever the line of work.

Granted this is a sensitive matter relating to the death of one of their own, but I wonder if NBC News were working for months on an investigative report, and someone posted the facts of the story to wikipedia a day in advance of their airing their report, would NBC feel comfortable deleting that story from wikipedia just to preserve their scoop?

I wish people were still working for months on investigative reports. But, yes, I think they would. That report will have cost a serious amount of cash to get made; and it has to at least try and pay for itself. Would you have a problem with Apple deleting a leaked product announcement, or asking a contractor to take action against whoever leaked it?
posted by bonaldi at 6:33 PM on June 23, 2008


Actually, I'd have a problem with apple deleting the announcement, because it'd be stupid when the cat was out the bag. But I'd expect them to take action.
posted by bonaldi at 6:34 PM on June 23, 2008


I find the blatant hypocrisy of this deliciously disturbing.

A news media organization has a news event happen right under their roof. Tim Russert. Dead. They put off reporting it?!

They wait to tell his family. His family knows what he did for a living. He disseminated news. They know this news organization is going to tell the world about this. They're waiting to tell the family first out of sympathy and polite etiquette and blah blah blah.

They're not doing it for the reason you tell the family first: to ask their permission, and how they want this to be handled. Grief is not for the dead. It's for the living. The family should get first crack at this information, and if they say they don't want it to be a media circus, their wishes should be respected and upheld.

Of course it's not. It never is. As I said: the blatant hypocrisy here is deliciously disturbing. It's a formality that has no bearing on common sense or decency. The decent thing to do would be for NBC to honor the request of the family, and let another news agency be the first to break the news.

We all know NBC was chomping at the bit to tell the world as soon as possible. They WANTED to be first! They're upset that they got trumped by the Internet: which is not held accountible to such outdated scrutiny and hypocrisy.

But if NBC is where the news event happened, NBC is no longer a news agency in this context. NBC becomes the news, and therefore should recuse itself from the competition. Otherwise it looks like a sore winner for even trying to be first, and a sore loser when someone else is.

One other thing: what else do the news agencies know that they don't tell you for one reason or another? It's not NBCs job to decide for me what I should know. They think it is, which is why smart people get their news ..elsewhere.

If your job is to disseminate information, DO IT.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:01 PM on June 23, 2008


We all know NBC was chomping at the bit to tell the world as soon as possible. They WANTED to be first!
People seem to think it's like this, but it's not. You don't really get scoops or break stories on events like that. Watergate, you break. 9/11, you report. Nobody cares who was first to report the planes hitting the towers. NBC wasn't dying to tell the world about this, because nobody would go "hey, I'm going to watch NBC news more often now! They knew about one of their staff dying before anybody else!"

They're upset that they got trumped by the Internet: which is not held accountible to such outdated scrutiny and hypocrisy.
You don't think there's outdated scrutiny and hypocrisy on wikipedia?

If your job is to disseminate information, DO IT.
Really. So you don't think journalists should ever hold back? Naming and shaming PAEDOS THAT LIVE NEAR YOU is cool? Reporting on live police cases, even when there's a strong chance that'll let the culprits escape? Naming the victims of sexual assaults? Break embargoes and sabotage live events? Spoil the plots of films, tell the endings of books, reveal whodunnit?

One of the key things in the development of online news sites will be when they're trusted with embargoed information. Because when your job is to disseminate information, doing it sometimes calls for discretion.
posted by bonaldi at 7:12 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Is this standard practice for all major media outlets? I mean does NBC regularly wait to announce the news of someone's death until family members are informed? I'm guessing that they don't, and whilst I can only imagine how traumatic it must be to hear news of a loved one's death on the TV, this does look like a double standard.
Television networks have a tradition of allowing a network suffering a death to make the announcement first. Other news outlets, including The New York Times and The New York Post, were about five minutes earlier in reporting Mr. Russert’s death for their Web sites
.

I'm surprised that everyone's so shocked that either an employer OR a news outlet would seek to hold this news until the family was notified. Do you not realize that news outlets extend the same courtesy to you? If you (or your spouse or child or whoever) are killed driving home, your local paper or radio station will not immediately disseminate the news that Your Name Here Killed in Multi-Vehicle Crash Tonight. The longstanding protocol is to ensure that the next of kin has been notified before releasing the name publicly. I see this as no different, with the exception that in the "age of the Internet," some people lose sight of basic human decency and instead cannot muster the power to resist the sweating of the palms and rapid heartbeat that tells them they must accrue social capital by being the first to post it.

This reporter didn't "scoop" NBC. It wasn't like NBC didn't know about it. All he did was disrespect the family's right to learn about Russert's death through a direct personal connection before seeing it become a topic in the media. This is simple news ethics, and the reporter showed a terribly poor understanding of them.
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


but I wonder if NBC News were working for months on an investigative report, and someone posted the facts of the story to wikipedia a day in advance of their airing their report

Generally they just email it to Matt Drudge. That's where he gets his "breaking stories".
posted by smackfu at 8:28 PM on June 23, 2008


One other thing: what else do the news agencies know that they don't tell you for one reason or another? It's not NBCs job to decide for me what I should know. They think it is, which is why smart people get their news ..elsewhere.

If your job is to disseminate information, DO IT.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:01 PM on June 23


No, ZachsMind, that isn't how it is supposed to go. Your right to know right freaking now is trumped by the family's right to a common sense of respect. I'm not saying you hold the news all day, or even several hours. But a couple of hours seems more than respectful.

Tim Russert was a father, a son, and from many accounts a great man in a great family. Even the chance that they could have learned of his death from text or news, instead of the voice of a friend or family member, is sickening.
posted by andreaazure at 10:48 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Miko is right. I don't know why anyone would criticize NBC for exercising a cautious embargo (and you have NO IDEA how much of your news is embargoed before you hear it), when generally the overriding concern about the media is how quickly they might report something as this.

They are probably overly irked at the IBS guy not observing the "code" than they are at being "scooped". It is, indeed, a matter of being suspicious of the new media and not understanding how they work. Nobody's 100% right, nobody's 100% wrong, but the world is 100% certainly changing the rules.

The guy definitely broke Wikipedia's Biographies of living persons policy (ironically), because without a proper source that information should not have been added to the article. But in practice, it happens all the time. I eye the obits every day and I have never once been anywhere near the first to edit an article on a recently dead person, but I am often the first to add a reliable source. So from a Wikipedia standpoint, this may pragmatically be expected.

I guess mainly I'm surprised anyone went to this sort of length to track the guy down over something that was true.
posted by dhartung at 10:53 PM on June 23, 2008


I saw the notice of Russert's death on Huffington Post a few minutes before the NBC announcement - somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes prior. I clicked on the story headline but there was no story behind it; when I returned to the front page, the headline was gone. I searched Google and other online outlets - nada. Turned on NBC. Nada. So I thought I had either misread it (unlikely, it was in a huge font), it was wrong, or it was being held. Sure enough, a few minutes later, NBC announced it.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:06 PM on June 23, 2008


I'm disturbed by how information is controlled and disseminated and that there's processes in place to determine when and how it should be safely disseminated so as to have maximum impact, or to manipulate and control the reaction. When someone doesn't follow the letter of this unwritten law, they get dealt with quickly and severely. This 'junior-level employee' has no name or face, and I'll be surprised if he's ever heard from again. No. I won't be surprised. I won't know. I won't care. That's how they want it.

What one person calls discretion, I call manipulation.

What one calls news, I call propaganda.

When people do attack the media, they attack the targets that the media make easy to aim at - people are so oblivious. We still fall for the Patsy Ploy.

Most of all, I am disturbed by how so many people are just willing to accept this behavior of the media, and even defend it. We are so comfortable in our hot water as the temperature slowly increases to a boil, aren't we? Feels like a sauna.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:52 AM on June 24, 2008


Well, hopefully it's still delicious, being this disturbed.

I like how you quickly went from a world of rapacious competing organisations desperate to get the news propaganda about Russert's death out to one ruled by a sinister "They" that colludes to manipulate the free flow of facts to our oblivious minds.

You should probably write a letter about it to our ruling council. Use the green pen, that'll makes it stand out.
posted by bonaldi at 2:32 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's incidents like this that make me question the efficacy of both NBC AND Wikipedia ...
posted by aldus_manutius at 5:29 AM on June 24, 2008


NBC made the right call by making sure the family was notified first. The networks almost always reports a high profile death as soon as they get the news, but in most instances somebody else has already reported the news to the family before the media gets a hold of it. In this very rare instance, NBC itself was the gatekeeper of the news between the family and the public.

I would have assumed that if NBC went right to the news story the uproar would be how they chased ratings and a scoop over being sensitive to the family. If Russert died on the air or at a very visible public event there's no controlling how the news spreads, but in this case he died in closed environment where discretion and sensitivity were applicable. For once I'm impressed with the restraint used in television news and think they should be applauded.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:09 AM on June 24, 2008


the Internet: which is not held accountible to such outdated scrutiny and hypocrisy.
You don't think there's outdated scrutiny and hypocrisy on wikipedia?


No. Wikipedia is cutting edge, modern scrutiny and hypocrisy. 2.0.

I guess that would be scrutni and hy.poc.cri.sy.
posted by rokusan at 6:13 AM on June 24, 2008


Here's what I'm missing -- if NBC was embargoing the announcement until it could be sure that all of the necessary members of the Russert clan had been properly informed, why was the information sent on to an outside agency? Once you let information free, it's out there, and people will use and misuse (not saying that this is a case of misuse, though) it. If you don't want people to know, you don't tell.
posted by Dreama at 6:57 AM on June 24, 2008


why was the information sent on to an outside agency?

News releases about breaking news are often sent out to other agencies - such as the AP or this IBS - in advance of their publication time. This is done on purpose - it creates a small window that allows the agency to "package" that story - that is, fit it to their print/web/ layout or write a broadcast script, add content if they need to (for a local angle, for instance), edit according to their own style, etc.

The thing is, the news source and the receiving agency are acting within an agreement. It would be reasonable for NBC to expect its requested embargo to be respected by recipient agencies. Even had this happened thirty years ago with an analagous leak - say, an employee reading an embargoed wire release and then just getting on the police radio to say "[Major Figure] just died!" - there would have been similar consequences.
According to the NYT, the person who updated the Wikipedia entry 40 minutes before NBC reported it worked at Internet Broadcasting Services, a company that provides web services to TV stations including NBC affiliates. IBS says a "junior-level employee" changed the Wikipedia entry to reflect Russert's death because he or she thought it was common knowledge.
The first thing that jumps out at me is why this employee would think this was "common knowledge." If the person actually did think that, they were very poorly trained. If they did not think that, they were acting outside the bounds of their employer's policies. Either way, repercussions seem warranted. One thing that seems to be missing from some of the pro-new-media disscussion is the fact that news outlets do operate within established codes of ethics. Employees of news organizations are generally given lengthy handbook materials and are expected to understand the responsibility they're taking on when handling information about other people. This employee seems to have somehow missed the fact that there was a protocol for the handling of this information, and his or her employer has every right to expect that employees follow the protocol.

There are a lot of things news outlets know but don't report. That is because they employ some consideration for the proportion, weight, or import of the facts witheld. Journalists know, for instance, a lot of sleazy stuff about people's affairs, crimes, corrupt acts, and so on. But they're operating from a position that balances public interest with the intense power which they recognize that they have to destroy reputations and create needless hysteria. When the stakes aren't that high - for instance, when it makes no difference to almost any of our lives whether or not we spend 40 minutes in ignorance of the fact that Tim Russert has died - I see that good news ethics would be to confirm that the family has been informed before making the news public.

Those sorts of ethics, those considerations for proportionality, are as yet not well-developed features of non-MSM news reporting on the web, speaking broadly. The MSM media does have established means of making ethical decisions and weighing news value. Yes, there is a conflict when disseminators with different values get involved, but I'd argue that those newer disseminators would do well to improve their own considerations about news ethics. We've got a right to public information and information affecting our citizenship and safety - agreed. But when there is little or nothing of public benefit to be gained by slapping everything you know about an individual all over the media, there is no ethical reason why a media outlet should do so -- any more than any one of us should have reason to find out whatever we can about any other one of us and publish a report detailing our findings in full. Not all information is important or useful information.

Among the things news organizations sometimes withhold are the most grievous and gruesome details of violent crimes, where there is already sufficient clarity about the severity of the crime; unsupported allegations that "everyone says are true" but have not been investigated; knowledge of personal failings or proclivities on the parts of public figures that might be lousy but haven't come into conflict with their work; events involving minors that don't reach the level of public concern, and so on.

For those who are concerned about jorunalistic ethics and how the decisions about information are made at MSM outlets, bookmark Columbia Journalism Review. It's a great magazine, giving a critical overview of news decisions, tactics, embedded biases, and more with a great deal of real understanding of how journalism happens at the newsroom level.
posted by Miko at 7:25 AM on June 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


> why was the information sent on to an outside agency?

Because that's how an embargo works. A press release or news announcement is distributed with the agreement that it's not made public until either a predetermined time or until the permission to release is issued. This prevents any one news agency from scooping another.

IBS is an outside agency, but as a service provider to news organizations it's presumably subject to the same constraints as its client organizations. You, wherever you work, are bound to certain terms of confidentiality and circumspection on behalf of your client, whether you're a clerk at a drugstore, a priest, an administrator of Apple's development servers, an Army general, or office assistant at an ad agency. Somebody at IBS violated those terms.
posted by ardgedee at 7:27 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interesting take on what happened, that posits that this wasn't an example of information-age Johnny-on-the-Spot David-and-Goliath excitement so much as an artifact of a post-industrial culture in which loyalty to an employer (and their policies) and job security are only memories.

As is so often the case with supposed dilemmas supposedly arising from web culture, I think it's really helpful to think: is there a pre-web analogue to what happened here? If yes (police radio example above), run the usual ethical tests on it: was it a right/supportable/helpful thing to do then, with other technology?

If not, it's probably still a lousy thing to do, web or no web.
posted by Miko at 7:41 AM on June 24, 2008


why was the information sent on to an outside agency?...

Maybe the information wasn't sent to IBS or, hadn't yet been sent.

A possible, informal scenario:

IBS 'Junior Level Employee' had been at NBC/MSNBC 6-months ago to particpate in an "NBC/MSNBC Wed Strategies Planning Session" where he/she met "NBC/MSNBC Internal IT Tech Support Rep." They "hit it off" and keep in touch. The IM stream from that day.
IBS Junior Level Employee: So, how did the server upgrade go last night?

NBC/MSNBC Internal IT Tech Support Rep.: Fine. A few glitches. Was here till 1 a.m.

IBS: Bumer. Glad all worked out.

NBC: Holy shit. Everyone's really upset. Tim Rusert apparently died of a heart attack down in our D.C. editing suites. People are saying, like, 20-minutes ago.

IBS: Wow. Ever meet the guy?

NBC: Yeah...when he was here at 30 Rock once. Really nice guy.

IBS: Sorry to hear that. Hey, I'm going on a break. Chat with you later.
IBS Junior Level Employee decides to edit Wikipedia entry. Later in the day heads over to MetaFilter to post an obit thread, but gets beaten to the punch by swift.

No malicious intent; probably not even aware of the tradition of embargo, etc. As such, doesn't deserve to lose his/her job over it.
posted by ericb at 7:59 AM on June 24, 2008


Regarding breaking media/press embargoes ...

Brings to mind Matt Drudge's releasing embargoed information that Prince Harry was swerving in Afghanistan, thus causing his withdrawal from the war.

Media's embargo on "Harry's war" sparks debate.
posted by ericb at 8:04 AM on June 24, 2008


*was serving*

-- and, yes, also likely *swerving*!
posted by ericb at 8:09 AM on June 24, 2008


If that was the scenario, ericb, it might not be a justified punishment. But we don't know any facts at all about who the employee was or how s/he heard.
posted by Miko at 8:15 AM on June 24, 2008


Mike, agreed.
posted by ericb at 8:16 AM on June 24, 2008


Damn ... *Miko*.

Time for lunch.
posted by ericb at 8:16 AM on June 24, 2008


And as a Wikipedia editor, he really shouldn't have posted the changes since he didn't yet have a verified source, and Wikipedia's citation policy does allow any editor to remove unsourced material, so IBS did no wrong there.
posted by Miko at 8:17 AM on June 24, 2008


Heehee.
posted by Miko at 8:17 AM on June 24, 2008


One other thing: what else do the news agencies know that they don't tell you for one reason or another? It's not NBCs job to decide for me what I should know. They think it is, which is why smart people get their news ..elsewhere.

Just a side note, and nothing personal, but all news organizations work this way. Someone has to decide what to put on air, or in print, or whatever, because there's not room in one paper or even 24 hours of news coverage for every news story from all over the world. If you think you have found a single news organization that doesn't "decide . . . what [you] should know," I think you are fooling yourself.

This is part of the problem with thinking that there is such a thing as unbiased news reporting. It's just not possible, because somewhere along the line, someone is making that decision for you. Now, you could spend all your time reading a selection of ten or twenty newspapers every day to try and overcome this issue, but then you would have more time in your day than me . . .
posted by dellsolace at 8:42 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


You're okay in my book, Mike.
posted by cortex at 8:47 AM on June 24, 2008


Also, it's a bit surprising that the web media loves to smash embargoes and Get The Truth Out There, when being trusted with embargoed information would be much better for them and their readers.

Tech's a good example of this. If Gizmodo were trusted, it's not implausible that one day they could get a preview scoop on, say, the latest iPod. Then, ten minutes after Jobs announces it, they could put full details and a review on their website, instead of "here's a phonecam screenshot we took from the Keynote crowd. We think it's got an extra button on the side, woo! Discuss in comments!".

Better for them, better for the readers. But colluding with the Man? Boo hisss.
posted by bonaldi at 9:33 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I sort of figured the sympathy would lean toward the code monkey who rushed to achieve the self-satisfied glory of getting to update a Wikipedia article on the website where everyone rushes to be the first to write about which celebrity just died.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 12:32 PM on June 24, 2008


I've been in the position in a newsroom of being the first person to tell someone about a death--a trainee in a program I ran had been murdered in his apartment-- and it's not fun. I don't see why someone whose job gave them, in effect, inside information, would feel the need to rush to Wikipedia to announce it. I'm not talking censorship, for heaven's sake, but before you trumpet it to the world, wouldn't you want to make sure the family had been told? That being the first by a few minutes doesn't make you a hero? Sorry, I think this person was out of line.
posted by etaoin at 7:15 AM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


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