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Reliable and unreliable sources


Good piece on how not only the wingnut-industrial complex but the nation’s most prominent mainstream “fact-checker” invented the transparently silly idea that a trustworthy, on-the-record source isn’t enough for a news story:

Why the Star or the doctor should not feel obligated to disclose sensitive and confidential information about a minor to Glenn Kessler is presumably clear to everyone besides Glenn Kessler. But it is surprising that his column made it past Washington Post editors without anyone pointing out that, given privacy considerations in cases of rape and child abuse, a lack of confirmation by “spot check” suggests essentially nothing about the credibility of the initial report—or that “single source” reporting is quite typical in journalism. 

In fact, even Kessler’s own paper will publish information from a single anonymous source, depending “on the source’s reliability and the basis for the source’s information.” It’s disingenuous for Kessler to suggest that the the abortion story is problematic purely on the basis of it having a single source.

Indeed, just a few months earlier, in a factcheck (3/6/22) about a quote attributed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that had one, anonymous source, Kessler considered the credibility of both the reporter (“a well-sourced former Marine”) and the source: “The attribution was a single source, but on the surface it appears to be a good one — a senior US official ‘with direct knowledge of the conversation.’”

Those are considerations he didn’t bother to extend to the Indy Star reporters—one of whom is a 17-year veteran at the paper—or their source. Kessler did note in the Zelenskyy piece that “still, it’s just one source,” but his conclusion approvingly nodded to Zelenskyy’s press secretary’s comment that “the quote, even if not accurate, reflects the moment.” And it’s the only other column FAIR could find in the Post archives in which Kessler even takes up the issue of a story being based on a single source.


In other words, though Kessler was able to dig up no disconfirming evidence, and, as he admitted later, some agencies he “spot checked” never even got back to him, an on-the-record statement by the doctor who performed the abortion does not give the story “solid grounding”—but an arrest warrant would. 

Think about that. The patient’s doctor would clearly know 1) the patient’s age, and therefore whether this was a rape case; 2) whether a fetal heartbeat was detectable, and therefore whether the abortion would have been illegal in Ohio; and 3) whether the abortion in fact took place. For the story to not check out, the doctor—who again, spoke on the record—would have to be flat-out lying. 

A police source, on the other hand, would have only secondhand knowledge of the case: whether someone reported the rape, and whether the police department had, as a result, filed any charges in the case. Oh, and by the way, we know that, as reliable sources go, police rank somewhere south of five-year-olds

Kessler’s standard ignores that fewer than a third of rapes are reported to police, and fewer than 6% result in an arrest (Washington Post, 10/6/18). It’s absurd to expect journalists to wait for charges to be filed before credibly reporting a rape, or a resulting abortion.

It’s simple — if a story is pushing a narrative you find convenient an anonymous source with second-hand knowledge is plenty good. Especially if it’s the cops! The bare assertions of a fanatically anti-abortion Attorney General are more than sufficient too. But if a story makes Republicans look bad a single on-the-record source with first-hand expert knowledge isn’t nearly enough, and indeed we can probably start implying or outright asserting that it was made up. I hope everyone is now clear.

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