This all comes up because a fellow Alaska blogger posted Monday that Shell's oil rig Kulluk is significantly damaged and may be sent to Asia for repairs. This would be a pretty big story if it turns out to be true. There's been no hint of something like this from the Unified Command, which has been silent for over a week now. I don't have enough knowledge about oil rigs and shipping to read between the lines of their reports that say "the Kulluk is stable and no oil was released." Nor do I know how significant seawater leakage is. But the Unified Command's minimalist updates have raised the question:
What are they hiding?
So, what should bloggers do when people on the scene give them information that isn't available through the formal channels but hard to verify further? And what should other bloggers do when they see such stories?
Those aren't rhetorical questions. I ask questions like that of myself a lot. Blogs and Twitter and Facebook have tempted traditional media sources into reporting some events without traditional fact checking. The race to be first to report has a pull, similar to taunts that get teenage boys to do things they oughtn't.
But I've also seen a positive side to alternative media reporting events that haven't been 100% confirmed.
Individual bloggers don't have the clout or resources that a traditional newsroom has. (A lot of current traditional newsrooms don't either any more.) I see a phenomenon happening. Bloggers each add a little information to the public debate. Individually, they don't have enough information, but collectively they get important information out into the open. As long as they give information on how they got the information so others can assess it and they qualify it appropriately, it's ok if it isn't always 100% accurate. My personal preference is that bloggers consider the impacts of tentative information on the people it's about so they don't unnecessarily do damage. It's like the traditional newsroom conversations about what to post, except it is publicly available.
I'm torn about what my proper role is here. Do I point out Phil's story to others - since it is out there and surely Shell knows about it and - according to Phil's post - wouldn't comment? Will this needlessly spread rumor that may ultimately prove to be false? Will it lead others to find other contacts who can help verify what Phil reports?
If it is true, does it matter if it's posted today or waits until Shell is ready to tell the world? I'm guessing that the sooner we know things the more questions there will be and that seeking answers before the corpse is removed will reveal more of what happened.
A further wrinkle in this for me is that Phil cites this blog's concerns about how sparing Shell and the Unified Command have been with information. Will pointing out the post be seen as blowing my own horn? People will see what they want to see, so I can't worry about that. Phil and I are not working together on this stuff and I didn't know about his post until I saw it posted.
The real questions seem to me to be:
How newsworthy is this if it's true?
How well did Phil document the story?
The answer to the first is: very. To answer the second I asked myself how a traditional newsroom would handle this? That isn't necessarily the standard that unpaid individual bloggers should have to follow, but it is at least a standard to think about it.
So I looked up journalistic sourcing online and found that Reuters has an online journalism guide which clearly states that everything must be sourced.
You must source every statement in every story unless it is an established fact or is information clearly in the public domain, such as court documents or in instances when the reporter, photographer or camera operator was on the scene. Good sources and well-defined sourcing help to protect the integrity of the file from overt outside pressures and manipulation and such hazards as hoaxes.I take most of this as a given for this blog and Phil does source his allegations.
If an event is not contentious it may be legitimate to begin a story with a paragraph that does not contain a source, as long as the sourcing is clearly given high in the story.
Reuters goes on to talk about where to place the source.
Newsbreaks should be sourced within the first two paragraphs. You should generally lead your story on the news, not the source, except in the following cases:
- If a story is inflammatory or is an allegation, give the source first. Write, for example: “Gallic leader Vercingetorix accused Emperor Julius Caesar of genocide”. Do not write: “Roman Emperor Julius Caesar has committed genocide, Gallic leader Vercingetorix said."
- If the source of a story is a major figure you would also usually put the source at the start. The same is true if the source is a weak one. For example, the secretary of a CEO who confirms that the executive was on his private jet when it crashed. If responsibility for a statement is clear, do not repeat sourcing unnecessarily.
- If there is an element of doubt in a pick-up, you would normally put the source first e.g. “A leading Manchuk newspaper reported on Friday that the President Mabee Iznogud was on the verge of resigning.”
Phil's post leads with the sources:
"I have now received word from two anonymous sources on Kodiak Island that it appears damage assessment of the Shell Oil drill rig Kulluk is far worse than has been thus far disclosed by the Unified Command."
But when can we use with anonymous sources? Reuters addresses that:
The weakest sources are those whose names we cannot publish. Reuters uses anonymous sources when we believe they are providing accurate, reliable and newsworthy information that we could not obtain any other way. We should not use anonymous sources when sources we can name are readily available for the same information.When I first saw Phil's story, I emailed him asking pretty much those questions: how reliable are these sources? Phil seems to think they know what they are talking about, but others interested in this aren't ready to go public with it. He also lists the official sources that he has contacted and who have not responded to his queries.
I myself contacted the Unified Command a week ago and got a form reply saying that they won't add information to the public updates. (Someone did manage to let AP know that Shell was helping the Food Bank get food to remote Kodiak villages, so it appears that news that helps Shell's image is shared. So perhaps news that isn't shared will do them harm.)
Unnamed sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us, or must represent an authority with direct knowledge. Remember that reliability declines the further away the source is from the event, and tougher questions must be asked by reporters and supervisors on the validity of such information.I don't know if the sources had direct knowledge or not. But I understood that two separate sources gave him the same information.
Responsibility for reporting what an anonymous source says resides solely with Reuters and the reporter. There is no liability or potential reputational damage to the source, making this the least watertight form of sourcing. We should convey to readers as clearly as possible why we believe the source is reliable, and what steps we have taken to ensure we are not being manipulated. This is done most effectively by the way we describe the source. The more removed the source is from a subject, the less reliable the source is likely to be. Reporters and editors should question the validity of information from a source remote from the action.Any media's reputation is based on its credibility. So to maintain that credibility you want to be sure you report only what you can confirm. But do you ever take risks because a story is really important to publish?
Be as specific as possible. Negotiate hard with your source to agree a description that is sufficiently precise to enable readers to trust the reliability of our anonymous sourcing.My sense is that Phil's sources believe they risk retaliation if they are identified which is why they are not named. He has two different sources.
“A source” or “sources”, “observers” or “quarters” with no further description is vague and unacceptable. So is the use of “informed sources” or “reliable sources”. Would we quote an uninformed or unreliable source?
When reporting a corporate deal, describe the source as specifically as possible. Use “a company executive/banker/lawyer close to the transaction” to convey the fact that your source is directly involved in the deal, but “a source close to the transaction” is also acceptable if the source is unwilling to be identified more specifically. “Banking sources”, “industry sources” and “financial sources” can imply that the source may not have first-hand information and is therefore less authoritative. Always be as specific as possible.
Stories based on anonymous sources require particularly rigorous cross-checking. We should normally have two or three sources for such information.
Stories based on a single, anonymous source should be the exception and require approval by an immediate supervisor – a bureau chief, head of reporting unit in a large centre, or editor in charge.This is a luxury that bloggers don't have. And in this case there are two sources.
Bloggers aren't bound by Reuters' rules. But I do think that Phil has clarified where he's gotten the information. He used terms like "appears to be" and "supposedly" to qualify the allegations. He reports his unsuccessful efforts to get information from Shell and from the Coast Guard.
I think this story is important enough for other bloggers and for mainstream media to start checking on it and if they find other sources to support Phil's story they should be sharing what they know with the world.
Shell has assured the US government and the world that they are well experienced in Arctic drilling and that there will be no serious problems that they are unprepared for. Yet there's been a series of embarrassments with their oil rigs in the last year. In this case, the rig broke loose from the tug which lost power very close to the last Coast Guard base on the way north. If they had hit a storm in the Bering Sea and lost the rig there, the story would have been much worse than this will turn out to be. Shell has been doing its best to minimize the information that gets out to the world. Journalists have an obligation to get independent information so that Shell isn't in charge of packaging the story of what happened.