- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

Using the wires

Two talented journalism students from the University of Missouri joined the foreign desk for the spring semester last week and, as usual with new interns, I took them to lunch to discuss what they will be doing and how we work.

And, as is usual with new interns, they asked a few probing questions that forced me to think about the principles underlying some of our practices.

One of those questions concerned our use of wire agency copy, especially when it is mingled with the work of our own reporters. Who gets the byline, and how do we decide?

It was an excellent question, going to the heart of an ethical problem that we face every day.

Like every newspaper, we often have to rely on the agencies for fast-breaking developments from faraway locales.

More than half the articles that appear in our section are straight wire stories, edited only slightly for style reasons or to shorten them for reasons of space. We give the agencies full credit and in most cases carry the byline of the reporter.

Occasionally, there will be developments or comments made in Washington, say at a State Department briefing, that we feel belong in the story but are not so important as to change the overall thrust.

In those cases, we insert the relevant material into the wire story, leave the wire byline intact, and add a tagline at the bottom saying, for example, “Staff writer David Sands contributed to this article.”

At other times, we may find that several wires have covered a story but each is missing important information available from one of the others.

At those times, an editor on our desk will blend two or more stories together and replace the byline with a simple credit at the top saying “From combined dispatches.”

Offer to Nigeria

It also works the other way. Often our reporters develop strong stories in Washington based on their own reporting at the State Department or Capitol Hill, but have to go to the wire services for details of related developments abroad.

In those cases, they are permitted to use information gleaned from the wires, but required to rewrite it in their own words. We then place a tagline at the bottom of the story saying, “This article is based in part on wire service reports.”

The point of all this, apart from avoiding accusations of plagiarism, is to make sure the readers know where all the information in our stories came from so they can make judgments about its credibility.

This is particularly important with quotes. We often find quotes on the wires that are relevant. In those cases we try always to attribute the quote to the particular wire agency.

This is mainly a matter of basic fairness and accuracy, but there is another good reason for doing so. If at some point in the future the accuracy of the quote is challenged, we can honestly say the error was made by someone else.

All these considerations played out in a front-page story Thursday by State Department reporter Nicholas Kralev about a North Korean offer to sell missile technology to Nigeria.

The original information about the offer came from wire service reporters in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. But we were at least as interested in the U.S. reaction to the reports, especially in light of the Bush administration’s continuing effort to halt Pyongyang’s weapons proliferation activities.

Beyond that, the information coming from Nigeria was contradictory. Two agencies quoted a Nigerian official saying the country was close to signing a deal with North Korea. But a third service quoted the same official saying the Nigerians had shown no interest in the offer.

We decided that the most responsible way to handle the story was to have Mr. Kralev write it under his own byline, combining the news from Nigeria with the American reaction, and to include the contradictory quotes with attribution to the wire services responsible.

Mr. Kralev’s lead neatly combined the news from Abuja and Washington like this: “North Korea has offered to sell Nigeria advanced missile technology, the Nigerian government said yesterday, prompting the United States to warn its African ally that it might face sanctions if it strikes a deal with Pyongyang.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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