Manufacturing credibility

I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks looking into the story that Saudi Arabia provided rebel fighters in Syria with chemical weapons. More specifically, I have been looking at the story of how it became a story – along with the questions this raises about the boundaries between journalism and propaganda, and about attempts to manufacture credibility for a report that was lacking in evidence.

On August 29 Mint Press News, an "advocacy journalism" website in the United States reported claims from anonymous sources in Syria suggesting that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia had provided rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels – not knowing what the weapons were – then handled "improperly", causing mass deaths on August 21. 

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications"). 

I read the story at the time and was unconvinced. It struck me as a fairly typical example of the wild rumours that can circulate in conflict situations. Apart from a few quotes from Syrians who could not be named for safety reasons there was no factual evidence in the story to support their claims. Simply stating that some unidentifiable people believe a story to be true does not automatically mean that it is true.

Despite that, and despite the fact that mainstream media have largely ignored it, the "rebel chemicals" tale has turned into one of the most influential stories of the Syrian conflict – for all the wrong reasons. As Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor noted yesterday, it has become Exhibit A for those who deny that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical attacks on August 21. It has also become a pillar in Russia's propaganda effort to undermine the findings of the UN weapons inspectors.

Brian Whitaker's e-book is a detailed account of the disinformation campaign surrounding chemical attacks in Syria.
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The eagerness with which Syria "truthers" latched on to this tale was bizarre since it relied on anonymous sources and uncritical quoting of them – practices that the truthers object to vigorously when they are found in mainstream media. But on this occasion it told them what they wanted to hear.

This is not to suggest that the claims from Damascus shouldn't have been reported, but they should not have been given more weight than the evidence merited. To be fair to Mint Press, it did add a note at the end of the article saying that "some" of its content could not be independently verified but the article itself was constructed in a way that implied the claims were probably true.

Reporting unverified claims is something no journalist can totally avoid. It's often important to report what people are saying, even if some of the things they say may be untrue. There's also nothing wrong with journalists making judgments about such claims, so long as it's a judgment that can reasonably be supported by known facts.

A large portion of the Mint Press article is devoted to Saudi involvement in the Syrian conflict. It points out – correctly – that Saudi Arabia opposes the Assad regime and is generally acknowledged to have provided rebels in Syria with money and arms. However, none of this amounts to evidence that Saudi Arabia supplied chemical weapons to the rebels, or even serious grounds for suspecting that it might have done.

An interesting feature in this part of the article is the way it includes a series of links to mainstream publications – Business Insider, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and the Wall Street Journal – and one effect of that is to give the article as a whole an air of authority and credibility.

This may seem like a minor point but it actually goes to the heart of the problem faced by Mint Press and others on the internet who seek to question received wisdom and promote alternative narratives: how do you persuade people to trust and believe you?

The short answer is that you need to establish a reputation of striving for accuracy, so that people can look back at your record and see that you have been right far more often than you have been wrong. It doesn't mean you have to be right all the time – no one can do that – but you have to show that you are trying; if you get something wrong, you own up to it and learn from the mistake.

That, basically, is what the more credible news organisations have sought to do over the years (even if, in practice, there have also been lapses). Establishing credibility in this way is a long, hard slog – which is why some are tempted to take a short cut.

Essentially, what Mint Press did with its chemical weapons story was to take a short cut by piggy-backing on the credibility of an international news agency, the Associated Press.

Dale Gavlak's association with AP added enormously to the story's credibility and helped to compensate for its flimsiness in terms of hard facts. That's why Mint Press insisted on including her name on the story, even though her actual role in it is disputed.

Writing for the New York Times blog, The Lede, Robert Mackey describes how Gavlak's name (and that of AP) was then misused:

"Since late August ... the MintPress report has been repeatedly mischaracterised as an admission of guilt made by Syrian rebels to an 'Associated Press correspondent'. As Russian officials continued to argue that the Syrian government might not have been responsible for the attack, one report in the state-owned Russian media began, 'In an interview with Dale Gavlak, a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and Mint Press News, Syrian rebels tacitly implied that they were responsible for last week’s chemical attack'."

Russian media were not the only ones to make that mistake and, from the way the story was originally presented, it's easy to see why. (The Russian report has now been corrected to make clear that Ababneh, not Gavlak, was the one who spoke to the rebels and a note at the top of the Mint Press article now makes it clear too.)

This brings us to the role of Yahya Ababneh, more information about this.

On the other hand, his LinkedIn profile (now deleted but preserved in a cached version) says he has been a freelance journalist since 2007. It also says this work "includes assignments in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications".

Given that it can be difficult to make a living from freelance journalism in Jordan, it's entirely possible – even likely – that he has been doing more than one job. That doesn't, by itself, invalidate his reporting.

The key question, though, is credibility. Until Ababneh breaks his silence or someone else provides information to substantiate the claims about his journalistic activities no one can be sure whether the claims are genuine.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 25 September 2013