- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

Beheaded in Iraq

“I’m feeling very sad,” read the instant message that popped up on my computer screen from reporter Betsy Pisik in Baghdad.

“The South Korean wire service reporter is sitting here on my sofa, drinking 16-year-old whiskey and sobbing. His English is difficult to make out at the best of times, but tonight he is just muttering incoherently.”

This was Wednesday at about 1:30 a.m. in Iraq, which is eight hours ahead of Washington. We had called Miss Pisik an hour earlier to ask her to write the story on the latest beheading — this time of a South Korean translator whose body had been discovered on a roadside west of the capital just hours before.

We could have taken a story from the Associated Press or Reuters, both of which were providing highly detailed accounts. Certainly there was not much more that Miss Pisik would be able to find out in the middle of the night.

But for reasons of personal pride and institutional prestige, any newspaper likes to be able to display its own staff byline on a major front-page story. That is especially true when we have committed ourselves to the risks and expense of having a reporter in a place such as Baghdad.

And Miss Pisik, like any good reporter, was determined to bring something new to the story, and so had begun calling all the Koreans she knew in the city. And so it was that the South Korean reporter came to be weeping on her sofa.

Even so, on a story like this, we find ourselves having to fall back on the wire agencies for much of the basic information that goes into our bylined story.

All major newspapers do it, and it is considered to be ethical as long as it is done in a responsible way.

The wrong way — which I have seen in print too often — is for a reporter to simply cut and paste whole paragraphs from a wire story into his or her article without credit or attribution.

Not only does that smack of plagiarism, but it leaves the reporter vulnerable if any of the material turns out not to be true.

More beheadings

The right way is for the reporter to read through the wire stories and absorb the basic information, then to rewrite it in his own words. If quotations are used, we should identify the wire service to whom the words were spoken. The same goes for any other information that is reported exclusively.

In the case of remarks made at press conferences and carried by multiple sources, we consider it sufficient to say that it came from a press conference. That is also true for formal statements issued by authorities or pickups from local radio and television stations — such as Al Jazeera — that have been widely disseminated.

Finally, we attach a “tag line” at the bottom of the story saying it is “based in part on wire service reports.”

On the night in question, Miss Pisik pulled together what she could find from U.S. and Iraqi authorities on the Internet, what she got from her own phone calls, and what she was able to read on the wires.

When she finished, I went through the story adding details I was able to find here, where our wire access is much better. And as I did so, I found myself sharing the same deep sadness Miss Pisik had described — a feeling that I last felt when editing our story on the May 11 beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg.

Miss Pisik’s story was finished and I was about ready to go home when we noticed another short story on the Reuters wire service: It said Taliban fighters in Afghanistan had beheaded a soldier and a civilian translator and that Afghan soldiers had beheaded the four perpetrators in retaliation.

We carried the Reuters story on an inside page, and inserted a paragraph about it into the front-page story from Iraq. Other media largely ignored it. Maybe we should have done more, but by then I was too emotionally numb to care.

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

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