Verify before reporting

Verify before reporting

How rumours in 2002 on a smuggled weapon from Pakistan turned out to be false

As millions around the world watched Wednesday’s blast in Beirut playing out on their telephones and television screens, U.S. President Donald Trump’s words could have had an even more incendiary effect. Speaking at a news conference, he said that his generals had informed him that the powerful explosions had been caused by a “bomb of some kind”.

“…They seem to think it was an attack,” Mr. Trump said. Given Lebanon’s current troubles, daily protests over its fractured polity and sinking economy, sectarian tensions, as well as the upcoming trial verdict on the assassination of former President Rafik Hariri, such a comment could have sparked more violence. Within a short time, however, the claim was denied, first by the U.S. military and then by Lebanese officials, who said the explosion had come from a consignment of explosives in a port warehouse.

Unfortunately, gaffes by Mr. Trump are all too common in the aftermath of any violence worldwide, and one of the biggest perils for journalists on the job. Typically, an explosion of any kind is difficult to investigate in the first few hours, given considerable risk from fires, unexploded devices or ordinance, and the priority to rescue those injured. However, each potential terror attack in this age of instant media is followed swiftly by speculation and jostling between reporters, who don’t always verify the information they receive.

‘Get it first’

As a result, conspiracy theories, unchecked lists of suspects, and even the quantity and origin of the explosives are put out before they can be assessed. In theory, journalists are trained to “get it right” before trying to “get it first”, but in practice, it is often the reverse that is true.

The result has led to some interesting outcomes in the world, like the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, which brought down the communist regime in the country, and brought Vaclav Havel to power in 1989 on the back of protest strikes that a mammoth two-thirds of the population took part in. The protests were sparked by a rumour that a student, Martin Smid, had been killed by the police, which later proved untrue. However, by the time the lie was called, hundreds of thousands had been mobilised in the streets of Prague.

I remember a strange story I was given to follow during the Gujarat 2002 violence, that could have had a much more diabolical impact. Local newspapers one morning reported that “rocket launchers” had been smuggled in from Pakistan. The weaponry had been confiscated by the police, the reports said, and fear was rife across Ahmedabad that mobs would go after those accused of procuring these ‘rocket launchers’, whose make and type was already being discussed feverishly on television shows.

When I reached the police station in the hope of getting some visuals, officials were rather sheepish. After some persistent inquiries by us, they agreed to open their “armoury”, which was in fact a small wooden cupboard. There, on the shelf , lay two peashooters, no bigger than the size of a catapult each. The “missile launchers” that could have unleashed so much more mayhem turned out to be just improvised schoolyard toys, and the subject of a salutary lesson for me.

Each of these events is a red-letter reminder that a journalist’s sacred duty is to ‘trust, but verify and only then to report.’

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