Did Andreas Lubitz predict his own future notoriety? Not so fast, fellow hacks

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.

3 thoughts on “Did Andreas Lubitz predict his own future notoriety? Not so fast, fellow hacks

  1. Excellent whistleblowing Frank but a lost cause in a 20th century industry grasping at straws during the last breaths of 21st century paper-news. You and I know the media elaborate almost everything and have done so for years because the prime focus of all media is now entertainment, not news. Why else would we be treated to innumerable ‘reports’ from outside the Houses of Parliament by political correspondents who could deliver their lunch-time briefings in the less dramatic comfort, of the TV studio. Why are we exposed to the despicable ‘press conferences ‘ involving the parents of missing or dead children, bewailing their awful sufferings, or the inevitable vox-pop comments from a ‘I’ll tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear- neighbour’ recruited from the cadre of ghouls who rush to frequent scenes of tragedy in order to get fame by proxy?

    When the media was controlled by the original Press Barons at least its bias was predictable, but today every new media graduate is suffused with the need to make their mark through celebrity, inverse celebrity and infotainment with scant regard to reporting what actually happened in a properly truthful manner. Stories are either ‘entrapment’ or interpretation of inuendo. Gone are the days when a few dozen ace reporters scooped real stories, found real facts, substantiated their filings and changed the world; now it is any pimplefaced graduate with an axe to grind or personal beliefs to push who jumps a bandwagon to agrandise themselves.

    Your remonstrations are commendable but the BBC and the rest aren’t listening. The only thing that can save proper news is a better educated and less naive audience but as the media consistently inculcate the expectances of the masses it is doubtful that will ever be demanded by a populace which has sunk to the level of demanding public executions.

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