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standards editor

When a major news event happens anywhere in the world, wire services are usually the first on the scene. You’ll recognize many of their names: stories reported by the Associated Press, Reuters and The Canadian Press are published daily in The Globe and Mail, augmenting our own staff coverage and filing from places Globe journalists simply cannot be because of logistical or financial limitations.

On Oct. 7, wire services, also known as news agencies, were among the first to report the Hamas attack on Israel because they already had staff on the ground there. Since then, readers have contacted me to express doubt, or even dismay, over The Globe’s publication of wire agencies’ coverage of the Israel-Hamas war, accusing the agencies of both anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian bias. Others have asked why the newsroom uses wire services at all. In response, I wanted to use this month’s column to talk about how wire services operate, why news organizations such as The Globe use them and whether their coverage is trustworthy.

Wire services were born of necessity, as a way for news organizations to obtain news from across the country and around the world in a timely and relatively economical fashion. “Before there were wire services, there were things called correspondents’ bureaus, where people would basically clip newspapers, gather information and deliver them to clients for money,” says Gene Allen, an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Journalism and a long-time scholar of the history of wire services. (He also served as The Globe’s foreign editor from 1987 to 1989.)

To get hold of overseas news, papers would wait to receive subscriptions from the United Kingdom or continental Europe in the mail, then reprint that coverage in their own publications, gratis. “There was no enforcement of copyright and at that point there was no value to the originators anyway. … But it was late,” says Mr. Allen, the author of Mr. Associated Press: Kent Cooper and the Twentieth Century World of News, as well as Making National News: A History of Canadian Press.

In an attempt to scoop their competition, several New York news organizations chartered boats to go out and meet ships carrying overseas papers, but the time advantage was minimal and the proposition pricey. In the mid-1840s, they decided to pool their funds to charter a single boat.

When telegraph services became available, they used the same model to split the cost of acquiring news, which any member of the collective could use, and also to send out their own local coverage to other papers. Now they could charge for this service, but they also needed an administrative framework to organize the technology and collect fees. This group would become what we now know as the Associated Press.

The collective benefitted the newspapers who purchased the service and their readers. Suddenly, a local paper with a small staff and limited budget could offer timely national and international coverage. Because of their vast size and mandate, wire services could operate bureaus, with teams of journalists and photographers on the ground, everywhere news was happening. This holds true today. Compare The Globe’s team of 250 journalists with the 2,600 working for Reuters in close to 200 international bureaus. Agence France-Presse (AFP) has 2,400 staff in more than 260 locations across 151 countries.

Around the same time that AP was building its empire, other wire services developed around the world, each initially with its own geographic stronghold. Reuters covered the British Empire; Havas (which became AFP), based in France, specialized in South America, Spain and Portugal; Wolff, the German news agency, covered continental Europe and Russia; while AP owned North America.

This may be when the public’s distrust in wire services began. In the 19th century, Mr. Allen says, AP avoided negative coverage of Western Union, which owned the telegraph services that it required to distribute news. All of the wire services were influenced by governments and large institutions, such as banks, until around the 1940s. “These were not exactly altruistic organizations,” Mr. Allen says.

Given this history, it isn’t surprising that readers have e-mailed me with words of concern, and sometimes hotly expressed dismay, over The Globe’s use of wire stories – from Reuters, The Canadian Press and AP. Some ask why we seem to ignore the reports of alternative news sources they follow on YouTube and other social media platforms.

News wires allow The Globe to offer coverage of important events our own staff cannot. For example, while journalists’ access to both Israel and Gaza is strictly limited, AFP continues to have 50 staff stationed in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. “There’s no substitute for having journalists on the ground. We still have journalists in Rafah in the south, so if we hear of any attacks or anything happening, we go to the scene,” says Eric Wishart, a former AFP editor-in-chief and its current standards and ethics editor. “We challenge our sources. … If somebody tells us something, we ask them: How do they know this? We don’t just parrot it.”

When it isn’t possible for a reporter to witness the news first-hand, AFP journalists work to gather accounts from all sides, he says, then corroborate and clearly attribute that information. The agency has a network of 140 fact-checkers working in 24 languages.

Asked about the public’s suspicion of casualty reports, particularly those attributed to the Gaza Health Ministry, Mr. Wishart points out that Hamas has been the authority in Gaza since 2007. “In past conflicts, we have found the casualty tolls given by Hamas have been corroborated by other organizations – UN, for example. Everyone admitted to hospital is recorded with their ID. So, there is a system; it’s not just picking numbers out of the air.”

To the question of bias, Mr. Allen points out that journalistic neutrality has always been a vital part of the value proposition for clients of news wires. “Most newspapers at the end of the 19th century were explicitly political,” he says. To be optimally profitable, news agencies needed to provide news that would work for any client, regardless of its politics.

Besides, Mr. Wishart says, the processes that guide the journalism AFP produces are designed to root out bias. AFP copy is overseen by regional editors-in-chief, a global editor-in-chief, a news director and a standards editor.

He suggests that when deciding where to get their news, readers “make a considered judgment” based on editorial guidelines that a news organization has published online. (You can find The Globe’s here.) Does the organization pledge transparency in its reporting? Does it openly correct its mistakes? How does it select sources? “There’s a lot of checks and balances in a big news organization obviously that you don’t have with just one person posting stuff online.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Israel and Gaza have limited journalists' access. Gaza does not control journalists' access to the region. This version has been updated.

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