Accuracy in Media

P.C. Runs amok at Reuters

Reuters Asks a Chain to Remove Its Bylines By IAN AUSTEN Published: September 20, 2004 (New York Times)

Having their bylines appear in newspapers is an unexpected bonus for news agency reporters. But now Reuters has asked Canada’s largest newspaper chain to remove its writers’ names from some articles.

The dispute centers on a policy adopted earlier this year by CanWest Global Communications – the publisher of 13 daily newspapers including The National Post in Toronto and The Calgary Herald, which both use Reuters dispatches – to substitute the word “terrorist” in articles for terms like “insurgents” and “rebels.”

“Our editorial policy is that we don’t use emotive words when labeling someone,” said David A. Schlesinger, Reuters’ global managing editor. “Any paper can change copy and do whatever they want. But if a paper wants to change our copy that way, we would be more comfortable if they remove the byline.”

Mr. Schlesinger said he was concerned that changes like those made at CanWest could lead to “confusion” about what Reuters is reporting and possibly endanger its reporters in volatile areas or situations.

“My goal is to protect our reporters and protect our editorial integrity,” he said.

According to Mr. Schlesinger, members of Reuters’ sales staff in Canada have asked CanWest to remove writers’ names to conform to its guidelines for the use of “terrorist.” Reuters has also asked that CanWest add its name to that of Reuters as the source of revised articles and to display that information only at the end of the articles. Alternatively, Reuters suggests that its name not be used at all.

Scott Anderson, editor in chief of CanWest publications and an author of the policy, said Reuters’ rejection of his company’s definition of terrorism undermined journalistic principles.

“If you’re couching language to protect people, are you telling the truth?” asked Mr. Anderson, who is also editor in chief of The Ottawa Citizen. “I understand their motives. But issues like this are why newspapers have editors.”

Mr. Anderson said the central definition in the policy was that “terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians in pursuit of a political goal.”

The policy has caused Mr. Anderson’s paper to issue two corrections recently as the result of changes it made to articles provided by The Associated Press. On Thursday, The Citizen changed an A.P. dispatch to describe 6 of 10 Palestinians killed in the West Bank by Israeli troops as “terrorists,” a description attributed to “Palestinian medical officials.” The Associated Press had called those people “fugitives.”

The Citizen published a correction on Friday declaring it to be it an editing error and describing the six dead as “militants.” A week earlier, the newspaper inserted the word terrorist seven times into an A.P. article about the fighting between Iraqis and United States forces in the city of Falluja. Mr. Anderson called the two episodes “silly errors.”

Late Friday, a spokesman for The Associated Press, Jack Stokes, issued a general statement about changes to its articles. “We understand that customers need to edit our stories from time to time,” it said in part. “However, we do not endorse changes that make an A.P. story unbalanced, unfair or inaccurate.”

Mr. Anderson said he did not know how CanWest would deal with the Reuters request. No one else at CanWest, The National Post or The Calgary Herald was available for comment.

In an editorial published on Saturday, however, The National Post said it would continue to follow its current policy.

“Mr. Schlesinger’s broader implication – that the substantive meaning of his reporters’ stories are being universally vitiated by our house style – is one we reject,” it said. “The agency’s use of euphemisms merely serves to apply a misleading gloss of political correctness. And we believe we owe it to our readers to remove it before they see their newspaper every morning.”

If you are as outraged as I am about this silly policy contact Reuters today.

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