In the rush to spoil the outcome of ‘Jeopardy!,’ slow down

June 3, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

I want to be careful how I word this.  If you had access to what you believe is the outcome of a “Jeopardy!” episode that involved a legendary winning streak that might itself be in jeopardy, how would you decide whether to report about that clip?

Some news websites including The New York Post, Fox News, The Washington Post, CNN, some radio stations and Breitbart have posted the contents of what they say “appears to be” “Jeopardy!” contestant James Holzhauer’s final episode.

The New York Times teased, “On Monday, the show’s most dominant player in years can surpass the $2.5 million Ken Jennings won during his famous streak. Read on if you want to learn what happened.”

The stories do not tell us where the video came from, how these media sites know it is real or when the segment is scheduled to air. USA Today’s For the Win site wondered if the video might be edited from other episodes and the tone of the story is “We will just have to watch and see.” It is one way to report a spoiler alert without spoiling, I suppose.

But Sony’s official “Jeopardy!” website includes images of the two contestants who appear on the viral video saying they are “today’s lineup.” And by midday, the Monday program was airing on TV stations that carry Jeopardy in the morning, not late afternoon or evening where most stations air syndicated game shows.

None of the social media posts or news websites that I have seen explain why they think it is newsworthy enough to spoil the buzz that the winning streak has produced. As Poynter’s ethics leader Kelly McBride said to me, “There is no ethical responsibility to report about this video before the show airs.”

If there was a scandal, if one of the contestants went berserk and attacked show host Alex Trebek, for example, the still-to-be-aired episode might have greater news value.

It is also not comparable to publishing the results of Olympic competitions when a network carrying the Olympics is delaying coverage for prime-time. That is a public global event, not an event that is confined to a TV studio solely owned by the syndication company.

There are so many people watching Holzhauer’s winning streak that the show’s ratings have grown by double-digit percentages while he has been on his roll. But for news organizations to publish a spoiler just to get online clicks or to undermine a competitor media also runs the risk of irritating the public. It is editorial arrogance.

I kind of hoped the leaked video was a fake.  I don’t think it is. But wouldn’t it be a gas if the whole video had been a spoof to jack up viewership? It would teach gun-jumpers to respect copyright, ask questions about the source of viral videos and just let people have a half-hour of enjoyment without spoiling it in the quest of “being first.”

This article has been updated.