Following inaccurate news reports on the explosion in NATO Member Poland, the Associated Press fired journalist James LaPorta.
The AP initially reported on November 15th that, according to an anonymous “senior US intelligence official,” the blast on Poland resulted from Russian missiles.
On the same day, the Polish and American governments concluded a Ukrainian air defense missile most likely caused the explosion. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that it was an intentional attack on Poland,” said the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, on November 16th.
National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson noted that the US had “seen nothing that contradicts President Duda’s preliminary assessment that this explosion was most likely the result of a Ukrainian air defense missile that unfortunately landed in Poland.”
“It is highly probable that it was fired by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense” and “unfortunately fell on Polish territory,” reassured President Biden. As a result, AP issued a correction and James La Porta was fired.
What can journalism learn from this?
1. Fact-check your sources and do a close reading of statements
Journalists are required to provide a second source when sourcing is anonymous. LaPorta’s anonymous source informed him that the missiles that landed in Poland were Russian aircraft. However, instead of searching for a second source to confirm this claim, LaPorta filed the story citing only one anonymous source.
LaPorta’s false report could have generated a World War III scenario since his article implied that Russian aircraft landed on NATO territory, giving full permission for NATO Member States to trigger Articles 4 and 5.
It is an AP policy, as well as for most accredited news media outlets, to require more than one source when sourcing is anonymous.
Citing only one source, especially if it is a confidential one, could risk the integrity and validity of the information put forth by the report. Thus, it is ideal to reference at least two sources.
When reporting on delicate news, such as national and international security matters, journalist should make sure that the information gathered from secondary sources checks out with the statements of credible officials familiar with an investigation.
A close reading of officials’ statements is key to accurate reporting. They are valuable primary sources and should not be misinterpreted.
To avoid misinterpreting a primary source, a good reporter devotes their undivided attention to what is being communicated. Instead of reading a primary source statement with preconceived notions of what will be said, a successful journalist entirely focuses on what is being said in an official statement.
2. Anonymous sourcing needs to be vetted and justified
LaPorta did not explain why the interviewee had to be cited as a confidential source. Nonetheless, a reason for anonymity is always required according to AP policy.
Moreover, a confidential source needs to be approved by a news manager who knows the source’s identity.
In LaPorta’s case, the reporter used a confidential source that had been vetted for a previous story, but its use had not been approved for the piece on the Polish explosion.
Confidential sources have to be reasoned and approved by a supervisor before being cited in a story.
3. Include all perspectives
Even when following the protocol on anonymous sourcing, it is crucial to include statements from other institutions, whether if they contradict the interviewees or agree with them.
For example, while President Zelenskyy insisted that the attacks on Poland were authored by Russian officials, Biden and Duda were continuously contradicting the Ukrainian President by stating that the explosion was caused by Ukrainian air-defense misfire.
In this case, where the truth remains unclear, it is pivotal to include all diverging points of view from the parties involved in the situation.
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