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February 13, 2007

Corporate Media Tramples Own Sourcing Rules on Iran Claims

The leading US-based news organizations – the New York Times and the Associated Press – violated their respective sourcing policies (and any semblance of reason) in reporting on US claims of "evidence" that Iranian officials are behind attacks on US forces in Iraq. In fact, most major outlets shoved their own policies aside like crazed shoppers on Black Friday, rushing to be first to report unsubstantiated, anonymously sourced allegations that put the US further on a war footing with Iran.

Neither the AP nor the Times explained to their readers – as is policy at both corporations – why the three anonymous sources who presented a highly orchestrated press briefing on Sunday insisted on and were granted anonymity. Here are the relevant rules:

We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it's relevant, we must describe the source's motive for disclosing the information.
–From the "AP statement on anonymous sources"

Whenever anonymity is granted, it should be the subject of energetic negotiation to arrive at phrasing that will tell the reader as much as possible about the placement and motivation of the source...
–New York Times policy on confidential news sources

To be fair, it isn’t entirely clear that the Times insists on explaining sources’ motivation for remaining anonymous. It could be insisting on their motivation for coming forward. But since the Times did neither in breaking or later rejoining this story, it’s pretty clear that even this relatively forgiving policy was trampled.

It has always been important to both outlets that they be able to cast aside this most-inconvenient policy. It can be adhered to when there is a good reason for a source to remain anonymous, such as a whistleblower or a fugitive. Such are the stories that lend credibility and integrity to a news outlet, as they should. But when the source is a sanctioned leaker – an official or agent passing along information that is beneficial to the government – adherence to principled policies would prohibit the corporate media from carrying out a key function: doing the government’s bidding.

How ridiculous it would be, after all, if the AP wrote something like: "The official insisted on remaining anonymous for fear of public accountability." Or if the Times were to print: "The source demanded anonymity ‘because I said so.’"

So the AP avoided the issue altogether. The Times tried a more awkward approach:

The officials were repeatedly pressed on why they insisted on anonymity in such an important matter affecting the security of American and Iraqi troops. A senior United States military official gave a partial answer, saying that without anonymity, a senior Defense Department analyst who participated in the briefing could not have contributed.

That partial answer was apparently good enough, even though it pretty strongly suggested the other two sources could have allowed their names to be printed, and the reason given for the "analyst" is sketchy, at best.

Perhaps most egregious of all the violations, it appears that the true identity of the source identified as an "analyst" was not even known to the reporters. This is an extraordinary violation of journalistic ethics, and it was carried out collectively, by the whole Baghdad corporate press gaggle.

When a source insists on anonymity despite obvious approval from his or her bosses, reason dictates one assume the source is either lying or has an ulterior motive. Sure, some government agencies have policies that no one on staff can talk to reporters on the record or for attribution, even when conveying official policy, but that’s not a reason; if anything, it begs the question, but it certainly doesn’t excuse journalists from their duty of insisting on transparency.

It is difficult to believe that anyone at last weekend’s officially sanctioned press event was under the impression that the presenters were telling the whole truth. The only conceivable motive for secrecy was that the presenters’ careers would be over if they were publicly associated with baseless accusations. (Others have done a much-better job explaining how it is almost certainly untrue that Iranian officials are behind the attacks on US personnel for which they are blamed.)

Then there’s this tidbit from the Times policy; there’s no clear parallel in the AP’s rules.

If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.
–New York Times

Or not – whichever the reporter and editors prefer, evidently. In this case, there was no further reporting, except to seek comment from Iran, which declined at the time the story was being rushed to press.

We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.
–New York Times

The sources admitted they were speculating during last weekend’s presentation. According to the Times:

The officials said such an assertion was an inference based on general intelligence assessments.

So the only question is whether the Times was relaying the substance of the claims as news, or was reporting on the "act of speculating." The answer is fairly clear in the article’s lead sentence:

…senior United States military officials on Sunday literally put on the table their first public evidence of the contentious assertion that Iran supplies Shiite extremist groups in Iraq with some of the most lethal weapons in the war.

Instead of treating the news briefing as an unsubstantiated spectacle, the paper took it very seriously and rushed it to print almost without any verification or skepticism. Since no evidence was presented that "Iran" – which can only mean the Iranian government, not rogue Iranian agents or smugglers – is supplying the weapons to anyone in Iraq, the Times’s opening statement is an editorialized assertion that the official claims hold water. Later on, the reporter gushes:

Whatever doubts were created about the timing and circumstances of the weapons disclosures, the direct physical evidence presented on Sunday was extraordinary.

The sensible, professional response to a request by three US government officials wishing to share officially approved information under conditions of anonymity, would be to refuse. Indeed, decent journalists would refuse to relay information under such conditions, not just as a matter of policy – which should go without saying – but as a method of protest. Organizations should refuse to convey such information, and those that report it should come under fire from the competitors.

In the real world, organizations that refuse to convey baseless accusations of international treachery are left in the dust. The higher your standards for integrity, the less attention you will get from the public and others in the industry. In the end, poor reporting of sensational subject matter always trumps prudent reporting of content that bears public relevance.

In case you’re curious, here is the relevant excerpt from The NewStandard’s own policy on anonymous sources:

When deciding under what conditions to gather and publicize information, keep in mind that identity-protection should be limited to credible whistleblowers or others with genuine concerns about personal safety or retaliation. Under normal circumstances, sources must stand strongly enough behind their views to be identified.

To read the whole policy, check out pages 22 and 40 of our Content Contributors’ Handbook.


DH: policies

For a media establishment with elite access to officials to turn around and start questioning the sources they have elite access to would be pretty dumb from a business perspective. I'm assuming not everyone was invited to the press conference with the anonymous sources (TNS?). On the level of national media coverage, this is a tough issue, with no easy solution in sight. The only thing I can think of is to support media establishments that give a damn about honest reporting. Thanks for pointing out the difference between selling words and journalism.

Benjamin Melançon: Some media begin to take a stand

Editor & Publisher published the Santa Fe, New Mexico, public radio station's line in the sand:

Effectively immediately and until further notice, it is the policy of KSFR's news department to ignore and not repeat any wire service or nationally published story about Iran, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia or any other foreign power that quotes an "unnamed" U.S. official.

Bill Dupuy's memo to news staff goes on:

This is a small news department with a small reach. We cannot research these stories ourselves. But we can take steps not to compromise our integrity. We should not dutifully parrot whatever comes out of Washington, on the wire or by whatever means, no matter how intriguing and urgent it sounds, when the source is unnamed.

No longer repeating unverifiable claims that serve a vocal elite is a good first step, but it isn't enough. Massive lying, slanting, ignoring of stated principles by self-described news organizations on an issue so important to so many people IS a news story itself. A black-out when most media outlets repeat lies doesn't do justice to an accurate presentation of the world, the fact that the lies are being spread, and who is served by them, must be reported. (In fairness to KFSR they have "Counterspin" and *don't* play NPR.)

I apologize for naming names on this issue here, but I was over-exposed to National Public Radio joining in the rush to a new war and have to release my anger somewhere.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR reporter: partially responsible for any deaths if the U.S. military attacks Iran.

This regurgitation of U.S. government propaganda, below, doesn't approach what I heard her reporting -- err, repeating -- the other day, but it's on the public internet. From a story on a U.S. government report on so-called sectarian violence in Iraq, where somehow U.S. involvement is never a factor:

The report says that Iran's involvement is a factor in the deteriorating situation, but unclassified portions released to the public do not provide details of the extent of that involvement.

It's a twist on the archetype of sleazy journalism. "Mr. Smith claimed Mr. Jones beats Mrs. Jones, but unclassified portions of Mr. Smith's claims do not provide details of how long Mr. Jones has been doing this."

I'm sure it would take pages and pages, and be a full time job, to name all the people in the media, especially the corporate media, who are putting the United States' imperial suicide party ahead of journalism ethics or humanity itself.

But if someone wants to try please do contact me.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.