Reporting on attribution can feel like an exercise in reporting on uncertainty, since even high-confidence attributions cannot be 100% certain. Knowing where and how to fill these uncertainty “gaps” — by asking for more data, identifying credible experts to help make sense of the evidence, and questioning speculation offered without evidence — can be time-consuming and challenging.
To illustrate the complexities journalists face in reporting on attribution, we present two examples of recent attribution judgments that received media coverage. Each case study identifies the evidence behind the attribution claim, reasons why that attribution claim might have been particularly difficult to report, examples of how the attribution was covered in the press, and what we can learn from this press coverage.
We will periodically update this site with new case studies. Readers can also submit suggestions for case studies to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporting an Attribution Claim from Anonymous Sources
As the novel coronavirus spread through the United States in mid-March, so did mis- and disinformation about impending governmental action. On March 16, 2020, media outlets such as the New York Times and Vox published articles on rumors circulating via text message that warned of an imminent national quarantine or lockdown.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ Speculation on Russian Bots
In February 2020, following allegations that his supporters were engaging in online attacks against Democrats critical of his policies, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont repeatedly suggested that some of this toxicity may actually be coming from Russian actors.
Did the GRU Hack Burisma Holdings?
In January 2020, a report from the security company Area 1 claimed that the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) had been leading a phishing campaign targeting the Ukranian energy company Burisma Holdings, starting in November 2019. The Ukrainian company first came to U.S. public attention that fall, when news broke of the Trump…