Consider the Source

Was the Times Square bomber a lone wolf or not? Attorney General Holder is now saying the Pakistan Taliban was behind the attack, but earlier Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano said her information indicated he acted alone. For journalists (and for commentators who base their commentary on the facts reported by journalists) it’s important to keep qualifying every statement by saying clearly what the information is based on and to note that there was no independent confirmation of the statement. Let’s face it: the only people who know for sure what the suspect is saying during interrogation are the interrogators and the suspect himself. And just because the suspect might say something doesn’t necessarily mean it is true. So journalists need to identify their sources clearly and to specify to what extent those sources do or do not know anything important. My own experience in Washington showed me that the government officials who know a lot usually don’t talk to the press, and the ones who talk to the press often do not know a lot. Journalists need to use formulae such as this: “A Justice Department official, who says he was briefed by FBI interrogators, says he was told that the suspect recently provided more information about his stay in Pakistan. Based on that information, the Justice official said, interrogators say they believe the Pakistan Taliban funded and helped plan the attack.” This may be awkward wording but it is cautious and careful and more precise. It leaves open the possibility that later the Justice official might say he misunderstood what the briefers told him about the interrogation, or that he misspoke when he tried to summarize what he had been told by them. Newsweek once got in trouble for publishing a report that the draft of a Pentagon report said GItmo interrogators flushed a Koran down a toilet. It later turned out that the source was someone who was trying to recall from memory what he said he had read in that draft, and he confused that memory with another one, about a separate report by civil liberties activists who were making claims about misconduct by Gitmo interrogators. The Newsweek story failed to explain what the source was basing his statement on, and commentators later made it worse when they condensed their own summaries to say “Newsweek says a Koran was flushed down the toilet.” If Newsweek had said, “A government official, who says he remembers part of a draft Pentagon report that he says he once read, says he recalls that it said an interrogator flushed a Koran down a toilet,” it might have been awkward, complex wording but it would have been much more accurate and clear, and then later when the official said he must have mixed up his memories, Newsweek would still look good because its report had made it clear that the official thought he remembered what he once had read, rather than being more certain this is really what he read. Human beings, of course, are fallible, and sources can get it wrong, and journalists need to avoid implying that information is more solid than it really is. So what is a reader to do when reading any news story or commentary? The answer is: Keep asking yourself: “What is this based on? How do they know this? Could the source be wrong?”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Consider the Source

  1. Aalaa

    This is interesting because one would think that sounding smooth on paper makes the writing better. However, you are saying that you should actually follow the chain of sources and cite each one. And, after reading what you wrote, I agree that while it may not be the most fluent sentence to read, it does provide clarity about the way a specific piece of information was obtained as well as provide a backup in case the accuracy of the information falls through.

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