On Tuesday evening, November 15, a alarming message from the American news agency AP: ‘Two killed by Russian missiles just over the border in Poland’, with a senior official of the American intelligence service as the source. Big news, which immediately fuels fears that tensions between NATO and Russia will increase dramatically.
However, the message turns out to be incorrect. At least: the missiles that landed in the village of Przewodów were of Russian manufacture, but they were not fired from Russia, Poland and NATO conclude a day later. NATO chief Stoltenberg says it was most likely an accident with an anti-aircraft missile from Ukraine. A conclusion that the Ukrainian president Zelensky doubts: he wants the results of the Ukrainian investigation at the site of the impact wait.
The erroneous reporting was the result of a conversation on chat platform Slack between AP editors and a reporter. That same reporter, James LaPorta, has since been fired. It can be deduced from that Slack conversation that although LaPorta came up with the wrong news, the decision to bring the news was made by others.
‘Trust comes first’
Earlier this week, LaPorta’s resignation was reported by US media and later confirmed by AP itself. The news agency reported that the “appalling mistake” was primarily LaPorta’s and blamed him for that mistake because it implied far-reaching consequences; that NATO would respond to a Russian attack on a fellow member state, as in article 5 included in the North Atlantic Treaty.
Significant is the reaction to the resignation of AP vice president Julie Pace. “We take our standards very seriously. If we fail to meet our standards, we have no choice but to take action. Trust in AP and confidence in our reporting is paramount.”
It is evident that the erroneous message was harmful to the press agency. The news was shared by news media around the world, with AP reporting as the source. The NOS also based its reporting on AP, stating that Russian responsibility was not officially confirmed by the US ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs.
In AP’s message about LaPorta’s dismissal, the reporter also speaks. In it he says that he would like to respond to the state of affairs, but that AP does not allow him to. But the leaked Slack conversations on the news platform Semaphore give more clarity.
The Slack conversation between LaPorta and the AP editors:
It reads that LaPorta reports that he was told by a senior US intelligence source that Russian missiles had landed in Moldova and Poland. LaPorta described the source as an “official (vetted by Ron Nixon)”. Nixon is the “Vice President of News” at AP.
LaPorta is asked if the news is worthy of a breaking-news “alert” to customers, or if another source has yet to confirm it. To this, LaPorta responds that that decision is not up to him: “That’s beyond me pay grade”, in other words: senior editors have to make a decision about this. He is also asked if he can compile a message himself. No, is the answer, he is with the doctor. “What I sent is all I know at this point.” A little later he says: “I wonder what this means for Article 5.” Finally, an editor writes, “Alert sent.”
The fault lay with the source allegedly vetted by Ron Nixon. Nixon had approved use of this particular anonymous source in the past. But in this case, Nixon was unaware of the tip or story. LaPorta doesn’t say this specifically either, but it was interpreted that way by the editors.
Reason for caution
There is no evidence from the leaked Slack conversation that the other editors gave lengthy consideration to the geopolitical ramifications of the reporting or that a second source was sought. In the report about the firing, the AP also speaks with William Muck, a professor of political science. He calls the incident “a particularly clear reminder” of the need for journalists to exercise caution in the “fog of war”.
“We forget that there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty in conflict situations,” said Muck. “There is reason for caution and to slow down.”