Silent treatment

By ADAM REILLY  |  March 14, 2007

Here’s why. Twenty years ago, it would have taken days or weeks for an investigative reporter to identify and obtain relevant background reading for a particular story. And your average mid 1980s Post reader probably wouldn’t have learned about similar coverage, whether in a competitor or in the alternative press, unless the Post deigned to mention it. Today, though, reporters can do background research in a matter of seconds; the general public can google its way to related reading in about the same time; and aggregators like Romenesko and Media Bistro make it easier for slighted outlets like Salon to stake their claim for an industry-wide audience. (I learned about Salon’s Walter Reed coverage on Editor & Publisher’s Web site, for example.) In other words, on several levels, the illusion of stand-alone reporting just doesn’t hold up like it used to.

That being the case, what’s the best response? Here’s an easy answer: if a publication advances a story that was first explored in depth by another media outlet, a brief reference to the former story could be folded into the latter one — before or after the jump — along with an explanation of how the second story goes beyond the first. Aesthetically, though, this solution isn’t very satisfying; this kind of disclaimer would have undermined the undeniable power of Priest and Hull’s Walter Reed coverage, for example.

Other approaches might work better. A sidebar or editor’s note could acknowledge significant prior work on the subject in question, and explain how the new story went further, say. (Presumably, this is something reporters and editors are already thinking about.) Or, even easier: online postings of stories could offer links for additional reading, and even solicit more suggestions from readers. Whatever the solution, one thing is certain: the information is out there — and it’s the press’s job to give the public more of it, not less.

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