AP fires reporter, revises sourcing rules after mistake in Poland

NEW YORK (AP) — The Associated Press has fired a reporter and is reviewing its standards on the use of anonymous sources after an “egregious” mistake in a story about a fatal missile attack that killed two people in Poland.

Homeland security reporter James LaPorta was fired after being blamed for a Nov. 15 news bulletin that erroneously said Russian missiles had carried out the attack, according to AP people familiar with the decision. They requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters and internal operations.

In fact, Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles fired by Ukraine are widely believed to have been responsible for the deadly encounter in the NATO country.

LaPorta, who had worked at the AP since 2020, said Tuesday that “I would love to comment on the record, but the AP has ordered me not to comment.”

The AP is believed to be the first news organization outside of the Polish media to report on the attack itself last week. The mistake of blaming Russia was especially damaging because of the danger it posed given NATO’s commitment to respond to an attack on a member country.

“We review any egregious mistakes that have been made,” Julie Pace, AP’s senior vice president and executive editor, said of last week’s mistake. “We take our standards very seriously. If we do not meet our standards, we have no choice but to take action. Trust in the AP and trust in our reporting is paramount.”

The initial report was attributed to a “senior US intelligence official,” with no explanation as to why the person was granted anonymity. AP policy requires a reason for anonymity. The story was later updated to add that the official was not named due to the sensitive nature of the situation.

The AP tries to avoid confidential sources, as per its mission statement, and sets strict guidelines for their use. For example, a reporter must get the approval of a news manager who is told the source’s identity to use it in a story, a process known as “investigating sources.”

In this case, LaPorta said in an internal Slack message that his source had been investigated by Ron Nixon, AP’s vice president and head of research, companies, partnerships and grants. But Nixon has said that he was unaware that the source was being used for this particular story and development, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

AP policies also require a second source to corroborate information received through confidential sources, although exceptions are granted on a case-by-case basis.

Other disciplinary action has been taken, according to the company, which did not provide details Tuesday afternoon. The AP is reviewing all aspects of the story and how it was handled, and how the material got to cable, Pace said.

“Anytime we have a bug, and certainly a bug of this magnitude, we have to stop,” Pace said. “We have to make sure we have the right policies when it comes to anonymous sources and reporting on sensitive information, and we have to make sure our staff are properly trained and have a clear understanding of how to implement these standards.”

AP Standards Editor John Daniszewski sent a note to all AP journalists Tuesday reminding them of the standards for the use of anonymous sources, saying the guidelines “should be known to all AP reporters and editors.”

He noted that the AP’s exception to its two-source rule occurs when the material being offered comes directly from an authoritative figure in a position of knowledge, with information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.

While the rules are straightforward, “they can be confused if reports from anonymous sources are placed directly in a Slack channel or in a conversation with other editors and reporters putting together an AP piece of news, especially in a breaking news situation.” Daniszewski wrote.

The AP internal message for that day included a brief discussion of whether a second source was necessary.

As the day progressed, the story was updated, including the addition of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s false blame on the Russians for the Polish incident. Eventually, the AP report expressed the incident by reporting on the Polish Foreign Ministry’s statement that it was a Russian-made missile.

The AP issued a formal correction to his story the next day.

The story contained the byline of a second AP reporter, John Leicester, who was covering a series of Russian attacks in Ukraine that day. Leicester, stationed in Kyiv when the story came to an end, is not facing any disciplinary action because he had nothing to do with the anonymous source material about the Polish attack that was inserted into the story.

The incident is a particularly vivid reminder, given the potential consequences, of the need for journalists to watch out in “fog of war” situations, said William Muck, a professor of political science at North Central College in Illinois.

“We forget that the nature of conflict is that there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty,” Muck said. “There are reasons for caution and to slow things down.”

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David Bauder is the media writer for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dbauder

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