Three More Questions for ABC News

Getting to the bottom of the bentonite sourcing story

On Sunday and Monday, journalism professors Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor issued “three vital questions for ABC News” regarding its reliance on anonymous sources while reporting the now-discredited bentonite-anthrax story in 2001. Rosen and Gillmor’s questions are listed here:

1. Sources who are granted confidentiality give up their rights when they lie or mislead the reporter. Were you lied to or misled by your sources when you reported several times in 2001 that anthrax found in domestic attacks came from Iraq or showed signs of Iraqi involvement?

2. It now appears that the attacks were of domestic origin and the anthrax came from within U.S. government facilities. This leads us to ask you: who were the “four well-placed and separate sources” who falsely told ABC News that tests conducted at Fort Detrick showed bentonite in the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, causing ABC News to connect the attacks to Iraq in multiple reports over a five day period in October, 2001?

3. A substantially false story that helps make the case for war by raising fears about enemies abroad attacking the United States is released into public debate because of faulty reporting by ABC News. How that happened and who was responsible is itself a major story of public interest. What is ABC News doing to re-report these events, to figure out what went wrong and to correct the record for the American people who were misled?

The questions are good ones, and ought to be answered by ABC News. But the debate over ABC News’s practices shouldn’t end there. Here are a few more questions that ABC News might want to consider. They might not be as direct as Rosen and Gillmor’s, but, in the long run, they may well prove just as vital.

1) When it comes to source attribution, confidentiality is not like a free newspaper, to be handed out to anybody on the street; in fact, confidentiality is usually granted to those sources who have either proven themselves reliable before, who are in positions of authority such that one might expect a certain measure of credibility, or who have sensitive information that the reporter has good reason to believe is valid. Without confidentiality as an option, many big stories would never be broken; yet it is an option that, as we have seen, is ripe for abuse. What sort of institutional oversight is there at ABC News regarding a reporter’s decision to grant anonymity to his or her sources? What level of independent verification is required for information that comes from unnamed sources? To what extent does the source’s credibility ever stand in for his or her information’s verifiability?

2) Knowing the details of ABC News’s due diligence would, at the very least, answer some questions about the pawn-or-player aspect of ABC News’s role in all this: if ABC News’s reporters did everything they could to independently verify, then it would seem to matter less, as far as their own culpability is concerned, whether they were lied to by their sources or were simply on the receiving end of an honest mistake. In terms of the bentonite story, then, what steps did ABC News take to verify the sources’ claims—not just in retrospect, as Rosen and Gillmor suggest in their third question, but at the time Ross et al received the reports? At any time during the reporting, was there any reason not to believe that the sources’ stories were true?

3) While ABC News should absolutely retract its bentonite stories, a mere retraction would seem to be horribly insufficient in this case, more a matter of journalistic convention than anything else. The practical damage, as Glenn Greenwald argues, has already been done, and a simple admission of error from ABC News won’t compensate for the results of its erroneous reporting. What steps, beyond a simple retraction, will ABC News take to insure that an egregious mistake like this does not happen again? Will anybody involved in the production of the story be held accountable for its flaws? Should they be held accountable? Will an ombudsman get involved? At the very least, this situation seems to demand a story explaining not just that ABC News was wrong, but how it was wrong, (and how it allowed these errors to happen, and what it will learn from this, and so on). Is such a story in the works?

Gillmor, Rosen, Greenwald, and the others are right: the public deserves some answers regarding the reporting, production, and dissemination of this story. What other questions should ABC News have to face?

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.