Opinion: Why we need to be cautious of "unverified" claims and allegations

The publication of a dossier containing unverified claims about Trump and Russia raises fresh questions about journalistic ethics

Opinion: Why we need to be cautious of "unverified" claims and allegations

Picture by Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP/Press Association Images

On Friday, US intelligence services published a document making significant accusations about Russian hacking in the lead-up to the US election.

The report states: “Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential election, including targets associated with both major US political parties. We assess Russian intelligence services collected against the US primary campaigns, think tanks, and lobbying groups they viewed as likely to shape future US policies.”

While one would hope and indeed imagine that these accusations are the result of major, detailed investigation - while the history of US intelligence agencies is for from spotless, they are hardly an unknown source - the document itself contains very little of proof of the accusations. We have to take their word for it, effectively.

While a substantial portion of the 25-page document explores the Russian state-owned RT network's efforts “to influence politics, fuel discontent in US” (RT’s ideological leanings are already a matter of public debate and record, much like any major media outlet), there’s little detail offered up on the more dramatic hacking claims.

In fact, the document itself explicitly notes: “This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign.”

For anyone finally hoping for evidence of Russian influence on the US election - something which Barack Obama himself has publicly claimed, and which has resulted in the US imposing sanctions against Russia - the report was something of a bust.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald took to Twitter to suggest “it's shocking how much this report was hyped and how literally no effort was made to include *any* evidence at all.”

While there is a definite argument to be made for protecting sources and methods to some degree (that degree will vary from person to person), the vagueness of the report’s claims go some way beyond that. The report’s release was a newsworthy event, but it remains important to emphasise the secretive nature of the intelligence community’s findings and therefore they invite being approached with some degree of caution.

New allegations

Any concerns about the potential dangers of 'bombshell' claims and reports have been amplified significantly, however, following the publication of a dossier containing serious allegations about Donald Trump’s connections with Russia.

The report includes allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information on him - something the President-elect has swiftly and strongly denied.

As many reports on the story have pointed out, the claims contained in the document are apparently completely unverified. Shortly after an initial CNN report about the dossier, BuzzFeed published the full document - stressing it included “specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations” and was “prepared for political opponents of Trump”. It also flags several 'clear errors' in the document.

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith detailed their reasoning behind the publication in a letter to staff, which he then shared on Twitter:

The publication of the document has provoked an online debate on social media about the ethics of BuzzFeed’s decision. Indeed, it quickly transpired that quite a few journalists had seen the allegations before. The document had been referenced by journalist David Corn in a Mother Jones article in October, but that report contained no specific details.

After the news broke overnight, Mr Corn said he “could not confirm the allegations” and “even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness”.

Victoria Jones, chief White House correspondent with Talk Radio News in the US, told Newstalk Breakfast: "Most news outlets are thrashing BuzzFeed's decision to publish it, because it is unverified. Many news outlets and journalists had this information before the election, and really good journalists chose not to go with this because they were verifying it. Intelligence had this, and they were verifying it.”

David Heath of USA Today suggested the way the document was published was “not how journalism works”.

"Fake news"

There is certainly an argument that the document is in the public interest, but it also marks a breach of long-established journalistic norms. President-elect Trump criticised the allegations as “fake news” and a “total political witch hunt”.

The debate about ‘fake news’ has been extremely heated in recent months, with both dubious and respected media outlets facing accusations of manufacturing or distorting stories. The latest incidents highlight how murky the waters have become - whether it’s an intelligence report that makes explosive claims with little evidence, or an unsubstantiated document becoming one of the major news stories of recent months.

These stories can also easily be exaggerated or distorted as they're reported and re-reported on by different outlets, especially ones that may have a particular partisan or ideological slant. 

Many people will want to or already believe these reports are true, and that includes politicians and voters from both sides of the mainstream US political spectrum. Certainly in the case of the intelligence service report published last week, there is a classified report circulating among authorised US officials that may well contain more substantial evidence of the claims contained within the 'public' release.

But it’s also important to approach these sort of stories with an extremely critical eye, especially the newly-published dossier. After all, the allegations contained within could potentially have major consequences.

We’re living in tense and deeply divisive times, and these recent incidents highlight the need to not let emotion and speculation replace a critical eye and proper, substantiated evidence & reporting.