A careful approach to reporting unverified information

Last week’s revelation about a private intelligence report allegedly claiming Russia has gathered compromising data about president-elect Donald Trump is challenging news organizations to figure out when they should report unsubstantiated information.

“When everyone else is doing it,” isn’t a good answer, although it does seem to be the prevailing methodology.

In her weekly column, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen says the organization has heard from listeners on all sides of the issue. None of them appears happy.

NPR reported the existence of the dossier, but not the specifics.

“I am most disappointed that NPR leadership allowed the organization to fall into the trap of reporting unsubstantiated information,” one listener said.

Another listener — Michelle Wilson of Wyoming, Mich. — compared the networks coverage to the more detailed look at Wikileaks information on Hillary Clinton.

“What conclusion should I draw from the difference in coverage? The options seem to be:
1. NPR learned something from the way it handled the WikiLeaks docs and is now trying to do better.
2. Mary Louise Kelly and/or her editor is more careful than [the NPR reporters covering WikiLeaks].
3. NPR simply has a double standard in covering anything Clinton related versus Trump related.
4. NPR, like many other individuals and entities, fears crossing Trump by reporting unflattering information.
Please educate me on the reasons for the difference.”

The authenticity of the Clinton email links was not in dispute, an NPR news exec responded.

Jensen says NPR’s approach to the Trump dossier has been “appropriate.”

My take: NPR’s reporting in this case has been careful so far. When a Cabinet nominee is being asked about a document in a public hearing; the president and president-elect have both been presented with it; and the president-elect’s communications team makes a statement about it at a press conference, NPR needs to report on it, even while dancing around the details. The fact that Trump opponents compiled the dossier should be noted repeatedly, however. Yes, radio time limitations will mean that’s not always possible, but it’s not a detail that should be left by the wayside or always assumed.

As for a double-standard: I thought NPR over-reported the WikiLeaks material, as the story took on a life of its own. So far, NPR has handled this latest disclosure cautiously — and appropriately.