AP fires reporter, revises procurement rules after Polish missile failure

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NEW YORK — The Associated Press has fired a reporter and is reviewing its standards for using anonymous sources after a “blatant” error in a story about a deadly rocket attack that killed two people in Poland.

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National security reporter James LaPorta was fired after he was found primarily responsible for a Nov. 15 news bulletin that falsely claimed that Russian missiles carried out the attack, according to people at the AP familiar with the decision. They requested anonymity to discuss human resources and internal operations.

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In fact, it is widely believed that Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles fired by Ukraine were responsible for the deadly encounter in the NATO country.

LaPorta, who has been with the AP since 2020, said Tuesday: “I would like to comment on the record, but I have been instructed by the AP not to comment.”

AP is believed to be the first news organization outside the Polish media to self-report the strike last week. The mistake of blaming Russia was particularly damaging because of the danger involved given NATO’s commitment to respond to an attack on a member state.

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“We are reviewing all egregious errors that were made,” Julie Pace, the AP’s senior vice president and executive editor, said of last week’s mistake. “We take our standards very seriously. When we fail to meet our standards, we have no choice but to take action. Confidence in the AP and confidence in our report is paramount.”

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

According to its statement of principles, the AP tries to avoid confidential sources and draws up strict guidelines for their use. For example, a reporter must get approval from a news executive who is told the source’s identity to use it in a story – a process known as “source vetting.”

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

AP policy also requires a second source to confirm information received through confidential sources, although exceptions are allowed on a case-by-case basis.

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

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“Any time we have a mistake, especially a mistake of this magnitude, we have to stop,” Pace said. “We need to make sure we have the right policies in place when it comes to anonymous sources and reporting on sensitive information, and we need to make sure our staff is properly trained and clearly understands how to implement these standards.”

The AP’s standards editor John Daniszewski sent a message Tuesday to all AP journalists reminding them of the standards for using anonymous sources, saying the guidelines “should be known to every AP reporter and — editor”.

He noted that the AP’s exception to the two-source rule comes when the material being offered comes directly from an authoritative figure who can know, with information so detailed that there is no doubt as to its accuracy.

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While the rules are simple, “they can get confused if reporting from anonymous sources is posted directly to a Slack channel or brought into conversation with other editors and reporters compiling a piece of AP journalism, especially in a breaking news outlet.” situation,” wrote Daniszewski.

The AP’s internal messages from that day included a brief discussion of whether a second source was needed.

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

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

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The story included the byline of a second AP reporter, John Leicester, who chronicled a series of Russian attacks in Ukraine that day. Leicester, stationed in Kiev when the story reached the wire, is not being punished because he had nothing to do with the anonymously obtained material about the Polish attack that was included in the story.

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

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

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