- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

Credibility factor

A newspaper has no asset more precious than its credibility, for if readers lose confidence in what they read in our pages, they will soon enough go elsewhere for their news.

With this in mind, we often shy away from good and important stories that are probably fair and accurate but that don’t quite reach our comfort level.

We are especially careful with stories based on information from unidentified sources. We tend to not take such stories from free-lancers unless we have a history with them, and we only occasionally use such stories from the wire agencies.

With the agencies particularly, we worry because we are not able to sit down with the reporter — as we can with our own staff writers — and ask, “Who is the source?” “How reliable is he?” “Is he in a position to know what he is telling us?”

Sometimes, we turn down fascinating stories that we personally believe to be true simply because we don’t know how to provide our readers the same level of confidence.

Shortly after the war in Afghanistan, I was approached by a free-lancer with a good record who insisted he had spoken to a doctor in the Pakistani city of Quetta who had treated the deposed Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, for a gunshot wound in the shoulder.

I had to tell the reporter we could not use the story because, no matter how confident the doctor was of his identification, and no matter how much I believed the reporter, there was no way of making the story convincing to the readers.

These are the sort of considerations that went through our minds when we saw that United Press International was promising an article based on interviews with the leader of a militant cell that has been staging attacks on soldiers in Baghdad.

The reporter, Mitch Prothero, had been producing solid, well-written and reported stories since he arrived in Baghdad a few months ago. What’s more, one of our own reporters had worked closely with Mr. Prothero in the past and spoke very highly of his integrity and professionalism.

But would the story be convincing to a reader who knew nothing of Mr. Prothero or his reputation?

Four mortar shells

Luckily, Mr. Prothero was sufficiently sensitive to the problem that he devoted the first several paragraphs of his story to establishing the credibility of his source.

While the cell leader had to be given a pseudonym for obvious reasons, Mr. Prothero noted that he had offered the man no money or other inducement that might have motivated someone to lie.

He described in detail the security precautions taken by the interviewee, who met Mr. Prothero four times, always in public places. Any electronic equipment that might have been used to trace him — telephone, tape recorder, camera — was off limits.

The clincher for us, though, was the same thing that convinced Mr. Prothero that the cell leader was for real: He predicted within one minute the moment at which a series of four mortars crashed into the Green Zone around coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

“I hope we hit something this time,” Mr. Prothero quoted his source as saying.

That sort of unexpected candor from the insurgent cell leader was sprinkled all through the story, giving it a ring of truth that made us feel even better about the article.

We still had a problem though: UPI had moved it as a two-part series, filed on successive days.

Even then, we did not like the two-part format. The first part had all the crucial information that established the credibility of the source, but only in the second part did he get to what we considered the most interesting information.

In particular, there was some fascinating material in the second part about the organization of the anti-U.S. cells, describing a pyramid in which each guerrilla knows the name of a few colleagues and the man directly above him but no one else.

We decided to edit the two parts together into a single story that established the source’s credibility and brought out what we considered the most important material right at the top. That was the article that appeared on our front page on Tuesday.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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