Everybody in the news business tries to find, develop and market their niches. Civil Beat, for example, touts that it has been rated the “best overall news site” by the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists five years in a row.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently published a full-page advertisement boasting that it now ranks as the 12th largest daily newspaper in the United States.

Another example of local niche-building news strategies comes from the television gang dubbed Hawaii News Now, a corporate consolidation of what once were three independent media organizations. They have been building their place in the area recently through the marketing label of “EXCLUSIVE” stories (yes, in all caps).

This screen grab from the Hawaii News Now website shows an example of their use of the EXCLUSIVE label on a routine story.
This screen grab from the Hawaii News Now website shows an example of the use of the EXCLUSIVE label on a routine story. 

I searched the Hawaii News Now website for the use of the term “exclusive” during the previous month and found the following samples:

I will leave it up to you, dear reader, whether those stories deserve that all-caps label, especially after we consider the term’s traditional connotations.

An “exclusive” story, in typical journalistic parlance, meant a news organization had done some sort of difficult work to get information that no one else had. It signified that news was breaking, directly because of some related Herculean journalistic effort, and that the news was something special and worthy of close attention.

In other words, it was a clear signal to viewers/readers that extraordinary journalism was present.

Racing To The Bottom

Yet scholars Justin Lewis and Stephen Cushion argue that the increasing and incessant “Thirst to be First” makes television news not more extraordinary, but more predictable and routine as well as less informed and less independent. Broadcast journalists, as noted by scholars C.A. Tuggle and Suzanne Huffman, in turn, often go on air live, with no apparent journalistic justification, to convey a false sense of immediacy and importance. Extensive academic literature also exists about how this “exclusive” imperative can lead to a focus on crime reporting and news that mongers in fear.

As examples, here are a few more Hawaii News Now exclusive stories from my search:

Such backstage behavior – of propping up pedestrian pieces and peddling in topics that contribute to societal fear – are worthy of a closer look.

But the focus of the rest of this column will be on a more curious case, of how Hawaii News Now temporarily tried to claim exclusivity on a story mostly involving rewriting a couple of widely distributed press releases.

The Curious Case Of The Not-So-Exclusive Exclusive

For a bit of background on this story, last month the Honolulu police arrested a former University of Hawaii volleyball player turned police officer, named Maulia Labarre, for alleged bribery, prostitution and unauthorized use of a computer. This was an internal sting operation conducted by the state Attorney General’s Office, in cooperation with the Honolulu Police Department.

At 7:52 a.m. on April 20, police spokeswoman Sara Yoro distributed an email press release about the arrest to more than 30 local journalists and journalism organizations, including HNN reporter Lynn Kawano and representatives from KHON and KITV.

Kawano, and the HNN staff, responded quickly and had a report labeled “EXCLUSIVE” online by 8:16 a.m. That’s impressive speed. In the accompanying video version, billed as the “top story” of the night, Kawano was credited with “first” breaking the story online.

Yet KHON wanted some of that “exclusive” action, too, with anchor Joe Moore leading into the piece this way: “We first told you through a push alert this morning.”

Reporter Manolo Morales then reiterated parts of the press release through such phrasing as “HPD tells me,” and “I have learned,” as if he had inside information, not a handout spread through that mass email.

KITV refrained from trying to claim credit on its version of the story and instead shared the mass-circulated statements, as is, with transparent sourcing and a bit of additional basic reporting.

Unsourced Information

In retrospect, KITV had about the same amount of foundational information as KHON (minus the dramatic wide shot of the determined Morales marching up the HPD stairs only to be rebuffed by authorities). HNN had a bit more details than the other two, although that additional information was unsourced, which violates basic principles in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

From a traditional journalistic perspective, nothing about any of that coverage warranted a second glance or an EXCLUSIVE label. Again, this was a case in which a press release with most of this information was sent out to multiple news media at the same time. They all digested and regurgitated it, some in odds ways by having “experts” speculate on such a case in the abstract.

In short, the television media did what they could at that point with the limited information released. Some did marginally better than others. Some put the information up marginally faster. The reporters generally documented the arrest, and, worst case, they can all jump in on the story again when or if charges are filed, perhaps releasing more salacious details.

For whatever reason, though, HNN had a change of heart about this EXCLUSIVE label on the story sometime during the day. While its initial web version used that EXCLUSIVE description, and that label persists on many stories in the HNN database, the final version of the piece had it removed.

Perhaps someone realized that claiming the story for HNN was a bit of an unfair kind of colonization of credit. That switch from EXCLUSIVE, to not, creates hope that maybe someone at HNN has seen the error of its loose labeling practices.

The organization might not go back into its archive and reassess all of those choices in the past, but maybe this experience will prompt more reflection about when the EXCLUSIVE label is appropriate in the future. That would be a bit of exciting news.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.