Journalists tend to be obsessed with scoops, meaning: the first to break the news, and being seen as the first, which means getting credit for it among peers.
But not all scoops are created equal. I see four main types. The politics of credit-claiming vary, depending on which type of scoop we’re talking about.
Type One: The enterprise scoop. Where the news would not have come out without the enterprising work of the reporter who dug it out. A classic example: CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons. Dana Priest broke that story. If she hadn’t, we would not have known about it. All credit should go to her, and when others report what she first reported they should say: “As first reported by Dana Priest of the Washington Post…” If they don’t, they suck! This is the classical meaning of “scoop,” and the one all others try to invoke when they use the term. It’s the most important, the most valid, the most useful… and of course the rarest. We should be grateful to journalists who pull it off. So feel free to thank them!
Type Two: The ego scoop. The extreme opposite of an enterprise scoop is the ego scoop. This is where the news would have come out anyway–typically because it was announced or would have been announced–but some reporter managed to get ahead of the field and break it before anyone else. From the user’s point of view, there is zero significance to who got it first. This kind of scoop is essentially meaningless, but try telling that to the reporter who feels he or she has one. Just today we had a classic example. Departure of Disney exec sparks Twitter spat over crediting scoops. Journalists who are defending an ego scoop are engaged in an intramural competition that has nothing to do with public service, and everything to do with bragging rights. Feel free to make fun of them! (I do.)
Type Three: The traders scoop. This is the most ambiguous of my categories. It recognizes that there can be situations in which, for the general public, “who got it first?” is next-to meaningless, but for a special category of user–the traders, investors, arbitrageurs–minutes and even seconds can count. A good illustration would be this false report on the death of Steve Jobs. Had it been true, it would have been market-moving information. It briefly affected Apple’s share price even though it was wrong. Had it been right, the reporter who got it two minutes before anyone else would have had a scoop barely meaningful to the general public (which would have found out anyway) but extremely valuable to investors or potential investors in Apple stock. If you’re a trader, be sure to follow such journalists. If you’re not, feel free to ignore their credit-claiming games. Type Two scoopers will try to describe their scoops as Type Three, so watch out!
Type Four: The thought scoop. The most under-recognized type of scoop is the intellectual scoop: “stories with new insights” that coin terms, define trends, or apprehend–name and frame–something that’s happening out there… before anyone else recognizes it. ”When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way, that’s something,” said a New York Times editor in describing this kind of story, also called a conceptual scoop. One of the most famous examples is Broken Windows, an Atlantic magazine article that captured a different way of policing that turned out to have enormous influence on crime and punishment in the United States. Feel free to admire those who are capable of such feats. I certainly do.
I should probably mention a fifth type: the “forever exclusive.” This refers to a story that remains exclusive–meaning, no one ever picks it up, or repeats it–because it turns out to be wrong. Not the kind of scoop a reporter wants to be known for.