Decapitating the Truth

On Thursday, June 28, The Associated Press-and to a lesser extent, Reuters, and a small independent Iraqi news agency-ran stories claiming that 20 decapitated bodies had been found on or near the banks of the Tigris River in Um al-Abeed, a village near Salman Pak, southeast of Baghdad.

By 8:10, Thursday morning, I'd fired off the first of a series of queries to Multi-National Forces-Iraq (MNF-I) Public Affairs and current and former liaisons with the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior Civilian Police Assistance Training Team (CPATT) Public Affairs Office, asking what they knew of this claim. I was immediately suspect because of the dubious sourcing prominently noted in one version of the original Associated Press story:

The dead - all men aged 20 to 40 years old - had their hands and legs bound, and some of the heads were found next to the bodies, the officers said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The bodies were found in the Sunni Muslim village of Um al-Abeed, near the city of Salman Pak, which lies 14 miles southeast of Baghdad.

One of the police officers is based in Baghdad and the other in Kut, 100 miles southeast of the capital. The Baghdad officer said he learned of the discovery because Iraq's Interior Ministry, where he works, sent troops to the village to investigate. The Kut officer said he first heard the report through residents of the Salman Pak area.

Some other versions of the story (indeed, the most common variation) carried by American and international media outlets buried the distant locations of the two anonymous police sources six paragraphs further down in the story, under an account of a bus station bombing in Baghdad.

One can only guess why the Associated Press saw fit to distance the claim from the location of the sources, and only the editors at Fox News saw and corrected the Associated Press story to correctly pair the paragraphs stating the claimed mass beheading and the distant location of the story's anonymous "police" sources.

Some, such as the Washington Post, more actively obfuscated the distant locations of the anonymous police sources, and instead merely allowed that the came from "separate commands." The Post account also rewrote the story in such a way that it appears that there were three anonymous police sources.

Of the various versions of the AP story I saw released that day, only Fox News placed the paragraph citing the source's locations directly with the paragraph citing the report.

Other news services, including Reuters and Iraqi news agency Voices of Iraq carried remarkably similar accounts, once again citing similar anonymous "police" sources.

There were no named sources from this story from any media outlet, and the two anonymous Iraq police officers cited in the widely-carried AP account were nowhere near the scene of the alleged massacre, with Um al-Abeed being roughly 12 miles from the southeast edges of Baghdad, and Kut being 75 miles away, respectively.

As I wrote later that day:

I'm not Associated Press reporter Sinan Salheddin, nor am I Kim Gamel, AP's Baghdad news editor, but if I was investigating a story about a 20-corpse mass murder in-let's say, Manhattan-then I'd try to find a local police officer at the scene to interview about the case.

I wouldn't rely on a desk sergeant in Staten Island who merely heard reports of other officers being dispatched to check to see if there was such a crime, nor would I rely on a beat cop in Albany who is only reporting rumors of what he heard from friends of relatives in Queens.

By early Saturday morning, June 30, the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team (CPATT) working with the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior and Multi-National Forces-Iraq (MNF-I) Public Affairs released a statement stating that the beheading story was "completely false and fabricated by unknown sources." MNF-I PAO LTC Christopher Garver was nice enough to note via email that my questions were "one of the queries which caused us to look into the story."

Ultimately, the Associated Press and Reuters published stories -far less prominently than the initial beheading stories- admitting that their prior claims of a mass beheading were without merit, with Reuters adding:

Verifying reports in Iraq is very hard for journalists, who have been systematically targeted by different militant groups and rely extensively on local sources for information.

Paris-based press freedom advocates Reporters Without Borders estimate that over 180 journalists and media assistants have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, making Iraq the most dangerous place in the world to report.

Reuters is absolutely correct: reporting in Iraq is very dangerous work, and insurgent groups and terrorists do target journalists for assassination.

But it is equally true that insurgent groups and terrorists also use the media to plant false stories, and that media organizations consistently fail to find credible, independent sources to verify alleged atrocities and attacks before presenting an alleged story as fact.

Further, it appears that some news organizations, through a combination of questionable news-gathering techniques, insufficient editorial practices and indifferent -perhaps intractable- management, are more susceptible to running false and fabricated stories than others, with the Associated Press and Reuters being among the worst offenders.

Throughout the Iraq War, and with seemingly increasing frequency over the past year, these media outlets have become increasingly reliant upon anonymous sources and questionable sources hiding behind pseudonyms to deliver "news" with no apparent basis in fact.

In some of these instances, these wire services have been forced to retract days later, as they have with the false Um al-Abeed beheading story. Sadly, the international and national news outlets that often carry the initial claims as "page one" material fail to do so with the refutations, leaving most media consumers with the impression that the original account was accurate.

Remarkably, these news organizations continue to employ the same reporters and editors that have published multiple erroneous or highly suspect claims, or who have consistently cited discredited or disreputable sources.

Further, these wire services continue to employ newsgathering techniques that rely upon anonymous sources with little or no direct involvement with the story being reported, and often publish these claims as absolute fact, without any indication they are publishing what is often, at best, hearsay.

The MNF-I refutation of the Um al-Abeed decapitation story states that the claim was "completely false and fabricated by unknown sources."

That isn't exactly true. Both Reuters and the Associated Press presumably know precisely who their sources were for this story, as they know who their sources were for other discredited stories.

They just as they certainly know, or should know, which of their indigenous reporters-"stringers," in industry parlance-have been providing these suspect or discredited stories, and which editors have allowed these stories to press based upon the flimsiest of evidence, which often does not meet the service's own stated reportorial standards.

To date, these wire services have consistently failed to visibly enforce standards of reporting, and in some instances, have promoted employees involved in using questionable sources and printing false claims. Once promoted, these same employees only further degrade editorial standards, leading to the public's increasing distrust of these news organizations.

Wire services are only as valuable as the amount of trust readers can invest in their reporting.

As the quality and accuracy of their stories shows a marked and consistent decline, we can only attribute this decline to a failure in editorial leadership, and wonder how much further the respective Boards of Directors for these agencies will allow their reputations to slip before they see a need to replace senior leadership and re-examine their management decisions, editorial standards, and field-level accountability.


Bob Owens covers American politics, media bias, and foreign military affairs from Raleigh, North Carolina in his personal blog, Confederate Yankee.