December 19, 2006

Absurdly Unethical: The Potential Ethics Case Against AP

To quote the Bard, "What's in a name?"

The on-going Associated Press scandal known as Jamilgate began with this report from AP reporter Qais Al-Bashir. The initial report hinges exclusively on the word of Iraqi Police Captain Jamil Hussein, a source that the Associated Press has cited a total of 61 times since April of this year, and a man the AP has claimed they have known for two years (Note that link was active as I wrote the original draft of this story, but has since disappeared).

In fact, when Hussein's credibilty was challenged, AP went further in supporting this identity, and even provided the full name of Jamil Gholaiem Hussein to bolster their case.

But what happens if it is determined that Jamil Gholaiem Hussein is not the name of AP's long-running source? What if it is a pseudonym?

I posed a generic ethical question based upon Jamilgate to quite a few people this morning. It read:

Good morning.

Can I ask you three quick questions about source ethics in journalism?

If it is determined that a reporter has been using named source in an on-going series of stories, and that name turns out to be a pseudonym, under what circumstances would this be considered unethical behavior, and how serious a breach of ethics would this be?

Would it be compounded if the reporter insisted upon the veracity of the pseudonym?

What responsibility does the reporter bear in verifying the identity of his source?

Thanks for any help you can provide.

I decided on a generic approach as something of a "control;" is isn't scientific by any stretch of the imagination, but by posing this as a hypothetical, I was hoping to avoid any biases that people may harbor towards this specific story. It is, I think, far better to investigate these questions based upon the underlying principles that should drive honest reporting.

The answers to my hypothetical questions have begun to trickle in, and paint quite a dark portrait of the AP's behavior in Jamilgate if, Jamil Gholaiem Hussein turns out to be a pseudonym for someone else.

Dorian Gray?

So far, I have received four responses to these questions, from Jon Ham of the John Locke Foundation and a former managing editor of the Durham Herald-Sun, Larisa Alexandrovna of the liberal-leaning Raw Story, Jay Rosen of New York University's PressThink, and Committee of Concerned Journalists Founding Chairman, Bill Kovach (Peter Y. Sussman who is on the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. has also responded, as noted in the update at the end).

A lengthy excerpt of Jon Ham's response:

There are, indeed, times when a reporter needn’t know who a source really is. Let’s say a note comes in over the transom saying X will or has happened. A reporter then must, on his own, determine if X has or is about to happen. He must confirm it. That’s reporting, and since the reporter now has first-hand knowledge, the identity of the source is immaterial.

But if a reporter gets information from a source and reports it without verifying it, i.e., trusting the source implicitly, then he MUST know who that source is, what that source is, what his biases are, who he works for, what he’s got to gain, etc. That’s the only way to weigh his veracity.

If a reporter THINKS he knows all this and then it turns out the person was lying to the reporter and was really someone else, then the reporter has a moral obligation to report that to his superiors immediately since all his previous stories are now called into question. The reporter may be a victim in this scenario, but he has by definition failed as a reporter. For whatever reason, he believed the source and didn’t do enough to check him out.

So far, the above is not so much unethical as incompetent. But, if a person KNEW when he reported it that the person was not what the reporter told the world he was, that’s as unethical as it gets.

Also, if a reporter identifies a source by a pseudonym he has an obligation to tell the reader that he is not using the source’s real name and explaining why not. You can’t just make up a name and use it in a story. That’s not reporting, that’s fiction writing.

From Larisa Alexandrovna:

I am not sure what the context here is, so I will do my best . In general, a reporter should use anonymous sources when revealing the source identity would put the source into danger or retaliation politically or via employer. Usually, when using anon sources, a journalist should try to give basic background information regarding the source, for example:
  • A current official in the Department of Defense Intelligence office.

The above provides a great deal. It illustrates that the source is current and has direct access to topic being discussed. It shows that the source works for the US government, in the military, more specifically in covert activities. It also describes the source as an "official" which suggests the source has a higher rank.

Sometimes it may put the source at risk giving even this much information. So the journalist must put some distance between the source and identifying features:

  • An official in DOD (so you have put the source in a much larger organization out of specifics) OR
  • A current official close to the DIA (so you are still saying the source has access and is of rank, just not suggesting that they actually work there)

But you get the basic idea. So, given this background, the use of pseudonyms is not necessary to protect a source and not something I do. That said, It has been done when there are more than one source and all of the sources are at risk. Think Deep Throat, which while in part is a former FBI man, is actually a composite. If there is a real person who is a source, citing them anonymously and putting some distance between who they are and how they know what they know should be enough.

The reporter MUST verify the source and if it is an anonymous source, so too MUST the editor. That said, I don't know the context, so it is hard to say. If the source is intel, they may have a history that is "misleading." Again, without context, I simply do not know how to address this, but in general and as a matter of process the MUST stands.

From Jay Rosen:

The purpose of naming sources is transparency-- so that we can "consider the source," as the saying goes. Part of what we might want to consider is the source's background, history, where the person is coming from. A pseudonym obviously interferes with that, and so it defeats the purpose of naming sources in the first place. That would be true whether or not some expert says it's a violation of journalism ethics.

Normally, if a reporter is introducing a pseudonym for purpose of concealing identity so as to protect a source from harm, this would be disclosed. "Names were changed to protect...."

From Bill Kovach, CCJ Founding Chairman:

Without knowing all the facts let me try to answer your questions as asked: 1. If the reporter did not state clearly in the articles that a pseudonym was being used and the reason it was being used, yes it was a breach of ethics. Simply put it was not true and was deceiving the consumer of the information--both fundamental breaches of the ultimate responsibility the journalist has to the audience of the work. 2. I don't quite understand this question. If you mean the reporter insisted it was o.k. to use the pseydonym even though it was done without the knowledge of the audience to begin with it was a clear failure to understnd that the first undisclosed use was an ethical failure. In this sense it would be a continuing breach. 3. All reporters at all times have an absolute responsibility not only to make sure they know who their sources are but that they have verified that sources access to the knowlege imparted and to the fullest extent possible has verified that the information is valid.

The second question I asked—"Would it be compounded if the reporter insisted upon the veracity of the pseudonym?"—was a bit vauge, so I attempted to flesh it out with a bit more detail for Mr. Kovach:

I'm sorry for not making question #2 more clear. In this specific instance, the reporter was challenged as to the veracity of the source, with authorities claiming the named source provided was a fake. The reporter responded that the man is real, and went along further by providing a middle name to the pseudonym. If they willingly added to furthering this fake persona, this becomes a deeper ethical breach, does it not?

Chairman Kovach responded:

a case such as you describe---providing a middle initial to a fake name---is an absurdely unethical case.

To summarize, these four experts and practitioners seem to agree that it would be better for the source to be anonymous, and that it is hardly ever permissible to use a pseudonym to protect a source. The consensus also seems to be that in the rare instances a pseudonym is used, the reporter has an obligation to explain to the reader that a pseudonym was being used, and why.

If however, the reporter uses a pseudonym and refuses to disclose that fact, they we have a serious breach of journalistic ethics, one Ham refers to as "fiction writing," and what Kovach considers a "deceiving the consumer of the information."

As Kovach noted in answer to my follow-up about the reporter supporting the pseudonym by adding a middle name, he said is "absurdely[sic] unethical."

In other words, if it is determined that the Associated Press knowingly used the name Jamil Hussein as an un-announced pseudonym, then they knowingly breached journalistic ethics in all 61 stories citing him as a source.

Further, if they are responsible for creating or purposefully attributing a known false middle name for this pseudonym—such as the name "Gholaiem" cited by none other than AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll herself—then they are guilty of a major ethical breach of journalistic ethics by furthering such a fraud.

Let's hope for the AP's sake that Jamil Gholaiem Hussein is a real Baghdad police captain as the Associated Press continues to allege. If they are guilty of using pseudonym, then they have breached their journalistic ethics no fewer than 61 times.

This of course, brings up another question: what happens if the AP actually believed that Jamil Hussein was Jamil Hussein, and he turns out to be someone or something else?

Then, ladies and gentlemen, you get to watch as the credibility of every story ever reported using Jamil Hussein—all 61 stories—come crumbing down, and the reputation of the Associated Press along with it.

Funny thing, truth. Eventually it always gets out.

When it does, we'll be waiting.

Update: Another response, this time from Peter Y. Sussman who is on the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists.

My question: If it is determined that a reporter has been using named source in an on-going series of stories, and that source name turns out to be a pseudonym, under what circumstances would this be considered unethical behavior, and how serious a breach of ethics would this be?

Sussman's response:

Barring some overwhelmingly important mitigating factor, it's unethical -- and, to my mind a serious infraction -- if the reporter knew the name was a pseudonym and intentionally did not say so in the story, and even if it is acknowledged in the story, it's a dangerous practice because it's a device often used to create a good story line where none truly exists. I assume that s/he did not acknowledge that the source was a pseudonym in the story itself because you said "turns out to be a pseudonym." If that's a knowing practice -- that is, the reporter wasn't duped by someone giving him or her a pseudonym -- it's intentional falsification (misleading, or lying to, the reader or viewer or listener). Such practices add to the lack of credibility in all journalism. There have been Pulitzer Prize scandals over such infractions, if memory serves.

Specific provisions of the SPJ Code of Ethics apply to such cases. You can read the code at .

My second question: Would it be compounded if the reporter insisted upon the veracity of the pseudonym?

Sussman's response:

You mean that the reporter knew it was a pseudonym and refused to acknowledge it when confronted with credible evidence? Yes, no question it would be compounded. Candor with the reader is the first responsibility. Readers must be given the information needed to assess to their own satisfaction the story's trustworthiness. If the reporter was duped and is later confronted with credible evidence, he or she has a responsibility to weigh and discuss with the reader the possibility that an identification was in error -- and the reasons for the error. Clarifying and explaining news coverage is also covered by the Code of Ethics.

My final question: What responsibility does the reporter bear in verifying the identity of his source?

That is what the reporter is there to do, on behalf of the reader, to the best of his or her ability. Reporters can sometimes be duped, especially young and inexperienced reporters, but failure to check if there were any clues at all that a pseudonym was being used is reckless, bad journalism. Knowing or intentional or willful failure to do so (to make it a "better" story) is clearly unethical.

A lot will depend on the circumstances -- how much the reporter should have known if properly skeptical and how willful the falsification was -- whether the error was understandable or sloppy or outright unethical.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at December 19, 2006 12:37 PM | TrackBack

Excellent work, Bob. Truly.

I personally would love to extend the inquries, as they seem to logically progress, (at least to me).

1)What if the reporter becomes aware that his "source" is affiliated with a group that has a strongly vested interest in how the story is presented, what affirmative obligations does the reporter have based upon such knowledge?

2)What if the reporter becomes aware that the information given by the source and shared with the readers, turns out to be materially inaccurate, what affirmative obligations does the reporter have based upon even the appearance of bias or impropriety are raised?

Does the reporter have an obligation to "source his source"? Attempt to uncover the bias? Reveal the prospect of serious impropriety and bias? At what point must the reporter and his editor advise their readers that a serious question has arisen?

3)When the facts and evidence do not support the information provided by the now "questionable source", in fact point to a complete fabrication...what affirmative obligation does the reporter (and his or her editor) have to correct the record? How soon must they begin to act? Is it ever ok to simply "let sleeping dogs lie", when information provided by a repeated source is found to be utterly untrustworthy?

Posted by: cfbleachersp at December 19, 2006 01:20 PM

Excellent work, Bob. I excerpted and linked at CENTCOM says AP’s "Iraqi police source" isn’t Iraqi police -- Part 21

Posted by: Bill Faith at December 19, 2006 01:44 PM

MSM lies run silent, run deep. The fundamental problem with the MSM and US left is that all movements are driven by two cognitions: the Vision and the Grievance. The Vision is a future ideal scenario (for US conservatives, this is full democracy, an unimpeded economy, and opportunity for all; for Islamists, it is the society as it was with Mohammed). The Grievance is a present-time, frustrating impediment to The Vision (For US conservatives, this might be the Georgian 17 yr old boy and 15 yr old girl who enjoyed oral sex, but he got 10 yrs. For Islamists, it might be the recent Dubai Film festival, with Muslim women wearing beautiful, revealing dresses). This Vision-Grievance template works for every movement from neo-nazis to boy scouts. The catastrophe for the MSM and the US left is the death of their Vision, the socialist paradise. They still have many grievances (Big Oil, economic inequities, inadequate welfare, etc), but without the Vision, they are defensive and hostile. The MSM, the Cindy Sheehans, John Kerrys, etc., are angry because their life-long Vision is dead. Socialism failed, wherever it was implemented. The moral turpitude, the wobbly high-grounding, the aimless reasoning, the constant whining, betray the permanent lack of direction, the frustrated malaise of a dying political philosophy.

Posted by: DemocracyRules at December 20, 2006 02:01 AM

Great work! Referenced and linked at Waiting For Jamil, or Someone Like Him.

Posted by: Tully at December 20, 2006 06:25 PM