Given the recent ugliness over the AP’s use of Iraqi police source Jamail Hussein in some sixty stories, and the resultant firestorm of skepticism over first his existence and, once it was determined that he did indeed exist, his trustworthiness, we’ve seen surprisingly little discussion (outside of the blogosphere) of the practice of cultivating sources in dangerous places, and how news organizations come to trust these sources.
In a piece published on the Washington Post’s Web site Sunday afternoon, (time stamped 2:36 p.m.) which essentially served as the working draft of reporter Ernesto Londono’s page 1 story in the Post this morning, we noticed what might be a nod to the controversy.
In the early Web draft, which focused on the crash of a U.S. military helicopter and the death of all thirteen American service members aboard, were the following passages:
Navy Capt. Frank Pascual, a member of a U.S. media relations team in the United Arab Emirates, told al-Arabiya television that the helicopter was believed to have suffered technical troubles before going down, the Associated Press reported.[emphasis ours]
Arkan al-Mujamai, 28, a day laborer who lives near the crash site, said in a telephone interview that the helicopter was shot down by a group of Sunni Muslim insurgents, one of whom is his uncle.
Mujamai said six Sunni insurgents were planting roadside bombs in the area when they saw a helicopter flying low overhead. One of the insurgents shot it down with a heavy machine gun, he said. Five of the insurgents, including his uncle, were missing Saturday night, and one returned with a wound on the left side of his upper body, he said.
Mujamai has provided The Washington Post with reliable information during past interviews, but his account Saturday could not be independently verified.
Beyond the fact that, as Spencer Ackerman suggests “Didn’t the Post just guarantee that its source is going to an interrogation room?”, what struck us about this passage is the Post’s revelation (which we haven’t seen before) that the source has provided “reliable information during past interviews,” and that “his account Saturday could not be independently verified.”
In the final draft of the article which, as we said, was on the front page of this morning’s paper, this qualifier was reduced to: “[the U.S. military] said they could not confirm accounts by Iraqi officials and civilians who said it was shot down by insurgents in a Sunni Muslim-dominated area of Diyala province.”
Not being privy to the ongoing reporting the Post invariably did on the story throughout the day yesterday, it’s impossible to say why the paper decided to take Mujamai’s account out of the story — an account, we must say, which was fascinating both in its detail and specificity. No doubt the Post had its reasons, but one can’t help but wonder if the AP’s recent travails in using Iraqi sources influenced the Post’s slide from specificity to generality in its reporting on this story.