The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and PBS were all taken in by a man claiming to be the iconic “man in the hood” whose photo became the signature image of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. They all thought they’d found the perfect source to describe the abuse that took place at the prison. After Salon raised questions about the Times story, the paper reinvestigated and published an Editor’s Note:
A front-page article last Saturday profiled Ali Shalal Qaissi, identifying him as the hooded man forced to stand on a box, attached to wires, in a photograph from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal of 2003 and 2004. He was shown holding such a photograph. As an article on Page A1 today makes clear, Mr. Qaissi was not that man.
The Times did not adequately research Mr. Qaissi’s insistence that he was the man in the photograph…
The Daily also placed an Editor’s Note atop the online version of its initial, glowing story about Carlson:
Some of the claims made by Charles Carlson included in this article were later found to be untrue. Several months after this story was printed, Carlson admitted he had lied about officiating tennis in the Beijing Olympics, and had also lied about growing up in England and having a personal connection to the Clintons. Hillary Clinton never shared her crème brulee torte with him. Carlson grew up in the United States—not in England. Carlson claims he was a communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but The Minnesota Daily has been unable to independently verify this.
Journalists have a duty to verify claims made by sources. We should also be aware that our presence alone could cause a source to fudge minor details, such as their age or the fact that they attended university but didn’t actually earn a degree. They want to look good to the reporter and, by extension, the public.
“The camera lobotomizes people,” Stephen Colbert told me a few years ago during an interview. “It cuts out the judgment part of their brain.”
That old newsroom saw about checking up on your own grandmother fits well with another piece of timeless advice: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
That goes double for sources.
Correction of the Week
“OUR report (”Off their Facebook”, May 30, 2008) said that Amanda Hudson’s house on the Costa del Sol had been wrecked by drunken and out of control teenagers attending her daughter’s 16th birthday party, who had also stolen property. We also referred to an internet posting in which it was claimed that Amanda had punched Jodie because of what happened. We now accept that these allegations were untrue and we apologise to Amanda for the distress and embarrassment caused.” – The Mirror (U.K.)
All Anchors Are Alike
“A March 1 Style article incorrectly stated that Keith Olbermann described Karl Rove as having ‘a head like a lump of unbaked bread dough.’ That comment was made by Jon Stewart.” – The Washington Post
“In a TODAYshow.com article titled ‘18 More Tips From Your Grocers,’ published Tuesday, Feb. 24, a supermarket industry consultant was quoted as saying that ‘the new Jiffy peanut butter container looks the same, but it actually has less peanut butter inside.’ This claim is false.” – MSNBC.com