Small Wars Journal

War Reporting 101: Check Your Sources

War Reporting 101: Check Your Sources by Rodger Shanahan - The Interpreter

Earlier this year I wrote about the willingness of the news media to highlight claims of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces operating in Iraq and Syria, but their apparent unwillingness to critically examine their sources or to follow up when their claims have been denied, dismissed or proven wrong by the coalition. Of course, errors happen in war and civilians are killed. But some groups and individuals also claim civilians have been killed when they don't know the facts. And in other cases they use the media to promote claims they know to be false.

This issue has been the subject of some heated discussion in Foreign Policy. The founder of Airwars, a site that investigates and reports on alleged civilian casualties, wrote a scathing article criticising US acceptance of, and attitudes to, civilian casualties. In response, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve Stephen Townsend took to Foreign Policy to criticise advocacy groups and the media for a lack of intellectual rigour in assessing their sources before making claims of civilian casualties. He noted that, of the 270 allegations made by Airwars that had been assessed, 258 (more than 95%) had been found to be non-credible. 

The accuracy of sources is always incredibly difficult to determine in a conflict zone, and the coalition has the advantage of a range of intelligence products it can use to evaluate the appropriateness of the targeting and accuracy of civilian casualty claims. Advocacy groups, by contrast, normally rely on sourcing from other advocacy groups who may speak to people who claim to be witnesses. However, these groups may also have ideological biases that get in the way of due diligence or validation of reporting. They could even fabricate claims. The media needs to engage with such issues, and a laser-like focus on the strength of sources is the starting point…

Read on.