The BBC and plenty of other news outlets picked up a story in today’s Bild newspaper quoting a supposed former girlfriend of Germanswings pilot Andreas Lubitz. Here’s why I have a problem with that:
Sometimes journalists need to grant their sources anonymity. It shouldn’t be the norm, but in some instances it’s necessary in order to protect them from harm or to convince them to speak about an important issue when they don’t want their name to be attached to it. So if Bild wants to run a story quoting “Maria W.” that’s their risk to take.
But when other outlets pick up this story in order not just to report facts about Lubitz, such as the secret fling he allegedly had with a co-worker last year, but to quote her on his mental health and to reproduce context-free quotes from Lubitz himself, then that’s a problem.
When the BBC writes
“One day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember,” he told her.
what they are really saying is: German tabloid newspaper Bild quoted an anonymous alleged ex-girlfriend of Lubitz saying that he once told her that…
This isn’t hearsay. It’s hearsay of hearsay. Not only should this be inadmissible in court, journalists should think very carefully about ever stretching their standards so far.
Now the BBC and others might argue that this is an exceptional news story that warrants exceptional reporting methods. But I find it hard to imagine that any respectable news outlet would have quoted, say, a Portuguese tabloid quoting an unnamed person for a story on what the McCanns said about their future standing in the world.
Of course Lubitz is dead, and a foreigner, so maybe that changes the rules.
Bild says it vetted “Maria W.”s identity. But it doesn’t say it vetted her claims. One that’s particularly problematic is her claim that Lubitz was angry about his working conditions. It quotes her as saying that he complained about “too little money, fear of losing the contract, too much pressure.”
Now I don’t work at Germanwings, but I did make an effort to speak to someone who knows about working conditions in the German airline industry, David Hasse of Airliners.de. He assured me that working conditions at Lufthansa and its subsidiary Germanwings are still admirable, and the pay is good. And remember that Lubitz started working there in September 2013, less than two years ago. Anyone who complains about their first job as a pilot, having helped out at Burger King just a few years ago, either needs a reality check or isn’t being accurately quoted.
And that’s the problem with picking up other people’s anonymous sources. You can’t go back to them and say: “Are you sure he said that?”
I’d be curious to know whether the BBC and others performed the same due diligence on Bild’s anonymous source as they would have on their own.