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Editorial Integrity Gone Awry

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Where were the editors when a phony news story went viral in the worldwide media?

By William Dunkerley

Do you remember the Alexander Litvinenko story from 2006? A reputed Russian spy was poisoned in London by radioactive polonium, and a gruesome photo of him languishing in a hospital bed popped up in media all over the world. Top worldwide news stories reported, "Former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered on orders of Vladimir Putin."

Now, five years later, the truth finally comes out. Alexander Litvinenko wasn't a spy. He never worked for the KGB. And the claim that Vladimir Putin ordered the murder is not rooted in fact; it was merely an allegation by one of Putin's arch-enemies. What's more, the London coroner has never concluded that Litvinenko was even murdered.

What Went Wrong

How could an editorial failure of this magnitude have happened? And what can we as editors learn from this outstanding embarrassment to our profession?

Actually, I've had a personal connection with the Litvinenko story. In 2007, I was commissioned by the organizers of the World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists to study the media coverage of the Litvinenko poisoning. The Congress was held in Moscow, where I presented my report.

I told the Congress participants that the story was specious, and I presented an analysis of headlines and articles to back up my conclusion.

A few months ago, with the approaching fifth anniversary of the Litvinenko case, I thought of doing an article to reflect upon those findings. I pitched the story to Foreign Policy magazine. They rejected it. Then I tried the Columbia Journalism Review. They gave it the thumbs-down, too. So I decided to do a book on the topic instead.

That's when I uncovered more startling evidence of the story's inauthenticity. When I searched for details of the coroner's report on the murder, I could find none. It seemed as though no ruling had been made. I contacted the coroner's office in London seeking confirmation. I wrote:

"Based on my present understanding, I will report:

"'As of now, the coroner has not determined that Litvinenko's death was a homicide. Indeed, no certification has been issued as to the cause and manner of death.

"If that contains any inaccuracies, please correct me. Thanks."

The coroner's office responded:


"That is correct. Thanks for seeking clarification."

So all the time while newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media were reporting on a murder, there never had been an actual ruling that a murder took place. Perhaps "alleged murder" would have been a better term. But then there were also less-publicized but competing explanations. One claimed the poisoning was accidental, the other that it was a suicide. All things considered, reporting it as a "suspicious death" would have been more appropriate.

Then, I heard from a former instructor at the FSB (similar to the American FBI) academy whose students had worked with Litvinenko. He told me that Litvinenko was never a spy and never worked for the KGB. I also found a video of a 2007 Charlie Rose Show episode during which Litvinenko's widow maintained the same story.

This means that all the key elements of the story don't check out. Media outlets called the Litvinenko case a James Bond mystery. I say it's more like Alice in Wonderland -- a fantasy adventure that's full of illogical nonsense.

The book I wrote, The Phony Litvinenko Murder (www.omnicompress.com/plm), offers an insightful analysis into this example of editorial integrity gone awry. In it, I suggest that the most newsworthy aspect of the Litvinenko case is how a baseless story was pumped up in top headlines around the world. I describe how the story was "managed" by a PR firm bent on propagating a certain perspective. The firm in question apparently developed the now well-publicized storyline, handed out photos, and arranged interviews.

Why Editors and Journalists Failed

But, still, how could this have fooled experienced editors and journalists? Did they fail to do a responsible job out of ill intent? I've seen nothing to suggest that. Why, then, did they neglect their responsibility?

I'll posit a few contributing factors:

1. It was easier for them to go with a managed story that was handed to them, or to just follow the crowd in using the angle that others had taken. And it took less effort to write to their audiences' stereotypes than to explain realities that contradicted the accepted story.

2. A simple spy story had more instant audience appeal than a complex story of intermingled relationships, hidden agendas, and unfamiliar subtleties.

3. The editors and journalists involved lacked the expertise and resources necessary to do a thorough job. Was this a London story, or was it a Russian story that just happened to play out in London? Methinks the latter. But for the most part, the news crews in charge of the story were UK-based. And they were clueless about the critically important Russian subtleties of the case. A Moscow-based journalist of a UK paper told me of his fruitless efforts to correct the faulty journalism of his colleagues in London. He said that they were in control of the story and wouldn't listen to his input.

While the editors and journalists may have had no ill intent, the result of their failure was hardly benign. For instance, the present chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was duped by the story. At her instigation, the Committee in 2008 passed a condemnatory resolution based on the Litvinenko "facts" that turned out not to be factual at all. And based on that same phony information, Ros-Lehtinen urged President Obama in 2010 to seriously consider backing out of the US-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement and to curtail certain trade between the two countries.

Perhaps you don't edit stories about spies or murder. But whatever field your publication covers, you have an important role as an editor. As we've seen with the Litvinenko case, editorial integrity means going beyond just telling the truth as it may appear. You have a responsibility to do your due diligence (i.e., thorough, objective research) before toeing the journalistic party line. Failure to do so can yield disastrous results!

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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