Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bloggers, Media Ethics/Standards, And The Kulluk

Bloggers are still writing their own rules about how to go about reporting the news.  Traditional journalists used to have strict rules about confirming what they write. There seems to be a spiraling down of such standards these days though. 

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.

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.
 I take most of this as a given for this blog and Phil does source his allegations.

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.
“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.
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.
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.


  1. Steve, you're looking for journalistic integrity or some ethical mores or just plain old honesty from Phil Munger? He's claimed he has had 'journalistic training' and in the same breath, claims he's not held to any such constraints. Claims he has no reason to be bound by journalistic ethic or mores, claims he's beyond all that.

    And how very often he's provided proof of his belief that he's not bound by any sort of journalistic ethic or responsibility. All you have to do is review a few posts and he'll claim up is down and claim the next day that down is up. He's dishonest even when he's asked about the obvious cognitive dissonance of his own posts.

    As for dropping other people's names, just as he has used references to your work, that's all Phil does is stand on other people's work. He does it to call attention to himself. He's just as likely to bad mouth you in the next post if it suits his self promotion.

    A recap of Phil's supposed 'exclusive' has been rattling around the web for about 3 weeks now, it's neither new nor exclusive. Speculation and supposition are Munger's stock in trade, he's not happy without creating false narratives in which he can star.

  2. I'll bet that Conoco Phillips, another company with offshore aspirations in the Alaskan Arctic, knows more about the status of the Kulluk than any media outlet.

    The MSM doesn't want to spend the resources to send a reporter or camera crew to the scene. That's what needs to happen, I'm surprised that has happened...

    Perhaps it's time for Greenpeace or Sea Shephard to get involved....

  3. Anon (1/29) - that's a lot of accusation and little support. You haven't challenged anything specific that he's said in the post. I would be interested in seeing the other posts you mention on this topic since I couldn't find any.
    While I haven't always agreed with him and sometimes have challenged Phil harshly on some of his language and some of his charges in the past, he's always listened to what I had to say and responded reasonably. I think like all of us, he's a complex person.

    Anon(1/30 8:49am). I agree with your Conoco Phillips comment. I even made a similar observation when I responded to Update 44 today before reading these comments.

  4. Steve,

    Little support? All the support needed to demonstrate Munger's hackery is on display on his website. The hackery is and has been on display for quite a long time. His own posted assertions that directly contradict his own later postings of newer or successive assertions are glaringly obvious. His misrepresentations and false narratives have been spelled out numerous times in comments to his posts, and within those comments is evidence that Phil, through his reactions, is undeniably fully aware of his own myth making and nary a retraction when caught out spinning fallacious nonsense.

    I see you also have noted taking issue with some of his 'charges'. Since you note the plural form of the word 'charges, I'll take that as you yourself providing confirmation that you also have noted multiple instances of Munger's hackery.

    You note Munger's lack of being capable of using civil language and I'll not comment there except to note that he often attempts to wield obscenities in a sophomoric attempt to intimidate anyone who questions his duplicitous postings.

    Of far more concern about his overall language usage is his use of dog whistle racial slurs.

    His statements giving mere lip service to journalistic ethics are plainly writ. There is no ambivalence about his statements that journalistic ethics aren't of any concern to him before or after he's in the process of 'creating and posting' his hackery. He has made the claim that journalistic ethics and mores do not pertain to him or his actions because he's a 'blogger'.

    In several instances when he's been called out in the comments, the comments are simply removed and followed up with a denial from Munger that comments have been removed. (point of fact, he removed a comment last night or this morning that he must have felt shed too bright a light on his questionable postings)

    I'm surprised you couldn't find any instances of anyone else discussing the need for heavy lift vessels for the transport of the Kulluk and indications that the repairs need be done in Asia, and specifically in Korea, instead of facilities on the west coast of the US. All it takes is to Google a few key words and you'll see that has been discussed as far back as at least Jan 7. Commercial mariners and seamen have been discussing whether it was even a responsible decision to attempt to tow the Kulluk because of it's round shape making it anything but being conducive to being towed, let alone towed by a single vessel in bad seas and marginal weather.

    There is a body of much more well informed discussions and innumerable more credibly researched reports about the Kulluk and Shell's activities. Much of it was ongoing before it was apparent that Shell made some of it's more recent questionable decisions. Munger's take on this issue, as is most often the case on other issues, was to cut and paste someone else's work and then use that work to provide a channel for him to promote himself or attempt to include his purely subjective assertions, suppositions, and/or his own preconceptions into the frame.

    As for Munger being a 'complex' person? More like 'has a few too many complexes', complexes which he is apparently overly anxious to accentuate and revel in.

    1. Anon, I'm trying to be patient, but since you are making the charges it seems to me that you should back them up, not tell others that they're out there and to go look for them.

      Much of your comment falls into my deletable comments category: personal insults and rambling tirades.

      If there are so many easy to find links, give us some examples. I'm not finding them. Just because someone else says something doesn't mean that Phil didn't find the information independently. You offer no evidence of cut and paste. If you continue with this sort of comment, I'll delete them.

  5. Steve, First, I'd like to make note of an inconsistency in equivalency, or is it simply a lack thereof? After, I'll attempt to speak to a couple of other points.

    You made reference to 'harshly' challenging an unstated number of 'charges' Munger has made, I don't see any links or any more easily confirmable evidence of these as yet indeterminate charges which you harshly challenged.

    You also make reference to harshly challenging his use of language, also without providing specific links.

    Am I correct in perceiving that I'm to be held to a far different standard when it comes to participating in a discussion? You're allowed to be indeterminate or unspecific to a fairly high degree, ...and yet I'm deemed to be held to a different level,

    ...or if I read your threat right, you won't 'allow' me to be anything other than totally precise, highly specific and wholly unambiguous. I'm to be required to enumerate each point and provide explicit links.

    Beg your pardon, but I believe I've given people enough of a general direction to look, if in fact they care to investigate the scope of Munger's hackery for themselves. I've provided key words for searches which will return hits. Yes, someone may have to actually do more than click on a link, but if they are the least bit diligent, the information is there.

    Do I feel I should very publicly provide actual links to examples of Munger's false narratives, misrepresentations and dog whistle racial slurs? As a general rule, I'm not so inclined. I try not to provide unreasoned promotion of websites I don't fully endorse. I don't wish to physically set in motion clickable links, the very things which unmindfully increase Munger's web presence, or to become the causal factor which may increase his 'blog traffic'.

    I will however, give a couple of instances, out of a multitude, in which Munger has created false narratives, and pushed tacit misrepresentations.

    continued below...

  6. Continued from above...

    In a post purporting to claim concern for victims of military suicide, Munger makes the bald faced assertion that our president has not been at all responsive to the problem. The facts are, that those closest to this issue, those in all levels of the military and groups outside of the military, professionals, policymakers, veterans organizations and military family groups, have all very publicly noted that president Obama has done more to address this issue than any other president.

    Munger's response to being informed of his glaring misstatement? No retraction, no modification of the false narrative, a refusal to address such blatant hackery.

    Recently, speaking of our president's 2nd inaugural address, Munger very specifically asserted that the president made no mention of climate change.

    The fact is, Obama made very implicit and unmistakable mention of a promise to address climate change. Ah, but the facts don't mesh with the false narrative Munger wished to promote in his 'construction', so his false assertion was that the president ignored and did not even address climate change.

    Did comments on the post pointing out the obvious error result in retraction? No.

    To further compound this particular instance of hackery, a bit later, in an attempt to create another deceptive and unfounded narrative, Munger did cut and paste someone else's work that showed clearly the fact that the president cited climate change in a big way. And, once more, when the contradiction is pointed out to Munger in the comments, his only reaction is to react combatively and even go so far as to remove comments which he finds uncomfortable. (And I mean uncomfortable in the manner of putting his hackery on clear display)

    continued below...

  7. continued from above..

    To speak a bit on providing specific links, as reasoned web participants, I feel one should have a personal policy which one can adhere to where one doesn't provide links which unfortunately would boost web sites which should not be unnecessarily promoted. I personally try not to involuntarily do that which gives inappropriate sites more viewer exposure. I truly feel that to be irresponsible.

    In addition, I also don't feel it's my place to plaster links which provides far too easy access for every Tom Dick and Harry to go ogle select web communities. Many web communities are deserving of respect in that most of them, or at least a large segment of communities made up of professionals of one interest or vocation or another don't wish to be heedlessly bombarded with a lot of uninformed and unprofessional interruption. You know as well as I that some web communities don't react well to too many undistinguished and uninvited eyeballs, or to state it another way, don't suffer fools so easily and don't wish to deal with them in the first place. Some distinct communities can simply fail from too much attention.

    Another reason not to unnecessarily post links without a compelling and ineluctable necessity. I don't see that here, especially after providing everything short of distinct links.

    You state I offer no evidence of cut and paste and yet the inordinate majority of Munger's posts are mere creative replications of other peoples work from various news sources. The 'creativity' I speak of is when Munger deceptively interjects his own comment and framing within and amongst the lifted text blocks without always noting where his wholly subjective addendum, postscript or supplement begins and when it leaves off. If he can modify the quotes or cherry pick the source to alter it's original form to more closely align with a preconceived narrative Munger wishes to insert, he has little compunction to heed standards of journalistic integrity.

    I've never maintained that 'just because someone else says something' that fact alone would automatically negate the possibility of someone else discovering some sort of information or even similar information independently. I do, however take issue with Munger attempting to assign himself exclusivity to information which is, at this point, little more than severally held supposition.

    Bloggers, Media Ethics/Standard etc etc... You can delete my comments, but I'm not sure what I offer is so very damnable as to warrant such easy dismissal.

  8. Anon - no time to answer in detail. These seem much more appropriate. My concern about links was less about Phil than about the prior posts about the Kulluk going to Asia.

  9. This is getting too long and detailed, so I've continued my response at a new post. You can follow along there.


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