Sources, outsourcing fact-checking and the BBC

A report titled “Egypt taking ‘ultimatum against tourists’ seriously” which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on February 18th relies heavily on information previously published in a Reuters article of the same date.  ABM story

“Officials say they are taking seriously a reported ultimatum by Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis for tourists to leave the country.

The threat was reportedly made on a private Twitter account affiliated with the group, according to Reuters.

The Egyptian government has struggled against rising militancy in the Sinai.

The Twitter message gave all tourists until Thursday to leave Egypt or face attacks.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has denied using social media, but Reuters says the account has spoken for the group in the past.”

In other words, the BBC has produced an article based on a claim published by a news agency which got its information from an unverified source and – despite the fact that the BBC clearly has not checked that source itself, as evidenced by the use of wording such as “according to Reuters” and “Reuters says” – it has decided to run the story anyway.

Let’s take a look at what Reuters had to say about the source of its information:

“A militant Islamist group has warned tourists to leave Egypt and threatened to attack any who stay after February 20, raising the prospect of a new front in a fast-growing insurgency in the biggest Arab nation.

The Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed two South Korean tourists and an Egyptian on Sunday, made the statement on an affiliated Twitter account.

“We recommend tourists to get out safely before the expiry of the deadline,” read the tweet, written in English, which Egypt’s prime minister said on Tuesday aimed to undermine the political process begun after an army takeover in July.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has said that it does not post statements on social media sites, but statements that appeared on the Twitter account in the past have afterwards surfaced on jihadist websites which the group says it does use.”

That is obviously a very circumstantial basis for the assumption of the reliability of the source, and one which cannot be said to support the BBC’s claim that an “ultimatum” was issued “by Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis” – even with its caveat placement of the word “reported” beforehand.

These are the Tweets upon which the Reuters article – and the subsequent BBC report – is based:

DBarn ABM faux twitter

That Twitter account has already been shown not to be operated by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.

“However, the group [ABM] has no official Twitter account as of today. In fact, in late October the group issued a statement in which it said it was not operating any social media accounts and that any purporting to be the group’s account were unofficial. “[T]he only source of our statements and productions are the jihadi forums from al-Fajr Media Center (Shumukh al-Islam Networking and al-Fida’ Islamic Network),” the group said.”

There is of course a distinct difference between “unofficial” and “affiliated” as claimed by Reuters and the BBC. Furthermore, as David Barnett (research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) has pointed out, the @ansar_elmakds account has itself made it clear that it is not an official ABM account.

So the bottom line of this story is that somebody sent some Tweets, around which Reuters decided to build an article and the BBC then elected to duplicate and amplify that report with no independent checking of its source. This type of repetition of claims appearing in news agency stories without proper BBC verification before publication appears to be becoming increasingly prevalent.

Of course at some point BBC audiences may arrive at the conclusion that if the BBC has decided that it is sustainable policy to recycle second-hand reports with apparently no further fact-checking to guarantee the editorial standards of accuracy to which it professes to adhere, they may just as well read the original news agency stories elsewhere online.

  

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