Find the Source

“Nothing can now be believed that is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Thomas Jefferson

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The first question to ask when confronted with an attack on reputation is, “What is the source?”

The initial source of a false story that damages business or personal reputation is rarely a mainstream media outlet or newspaper. Not so very long ago, the publication of news required capital investment in a printing press, a radio license or a television tower. After all that investment in plant, equipment and regulatory approval came the editors, who challenged the journalists and tested the facts of each story before anything reached the front page or the evening news broadcast. That world has largely disappeared with the emergence of an entirely unguided Internet as the principal global source of news and information.

Major English language newspapers, magazines, broadcast networks, wire services and news websites—with a few notable exceptions—apply rigorous editorial tools to anything that is published as fact. These tools ensure that claims are properly sourced and checked for accuracy. It is actually quite rare for a major media outlet to knowingly publish news or information that is false or intentionally misleading. In addition to attracting legal action by the targets of such false reporting, failure to use accepted journalistic standards to ensure that the facts in every story are true—even in limited instances—will erode and eventually destroy the credibility of any publication.

The originator of an intentional attack on reputation may be difficult to identify when the false story does not appear in the mainstream press. With the advent of the Internet and the world of social media, anyone with a laptop computer or a cellphone is now his or her own publisher with the capacity to send tales around the world in seconds. This phenomenon has spawned a subculture of individuals—pretending to be legitimate journalists—who are willing to be paid to create and plant a false story under the guise of investigative reporting. These “ghost journalists,” who may be hired by the target’s business competitors or political opponents, will often create their own online publication. Another favored tool of ghost journalists seeking to foster an illusion of legitimacy is to falsify links to recognized institutions—ranging from nongovernmental organizations to trade associations to political foundations. While the process of finding the first source of a false story may be difficult, there are some time-tested questions that can be asked in an effort to isolate who or what is responsible for a coordinated attack on reputation:

  • Can the false allegation be found in “news” items that have been previously posted in online newsletters, journals or blogs that purport to cover a specific industry, region or market, but for which no antecedent history can be found?
  • Does the false mainstream media story attribute key factual claims to “previously published reports,” without any other specific source attribution?
  • Do the original reports, outside the mainstream media, suggest classified information or similar government secrets as the basis for the false statements?
  • Is the critical allegation attributed to unnamed “law enforcement sources” or unspecified “government documents” that are not made public in their entirety at the time the false claim first appears in the media?
  • Is there an indication in the earliest Internet version of the story suggesting that leaked, hacked or otherwise stolen documents are claimed to be the source?
  • Has the initial version of the report been associated with parliamentary proceedings in a jurisdiction in which any elected legislator has the right to place any document in the record, where all such actions are protected by legislative immunity?
  • If individuals are cited as sources for the first false published statements, do those individuals suffer from demonstrated bias or other factors that destroy credibility?
  • Does the timing or placement of the original false report coincide with an important commercial event for the target, including execution of an important contract, the initial listing of securities on an international exchange or the negotiation of major corporate financing, that may signal the hand of a business competitor using “ghost journalists”?

Once the original source has been identified and possibly confirmed through diligent research, concrete actions may be taken quickly to isolate and neutralize a baseless story that threatens to damage reputation. The next critical step in the process of protecting reputation is to assemble the ultimate antidote to false reporting: the facts.