Here’s one of the presentations I’ll be making at the AEJMC conference in St. Louis next week. I may have to shorten it a tad because I’m only supposed to speak for 10 minutes. The research represents about a third of my doctoral dissertation, and the paper will be published in Newspaper Research Journal later this year. Let me know if you see any typos.
You can never be sure they’re telling the truth, writes Jack Schafer in Slate. Some interesting points about the similarities to the infamous FBI informant and the age-old journalism technique:
That collaborations between sources and journalists rarely result in murder is something for which we can all be grateful. But the parallels are too many to ignore. Like cops, journalists become tethered to their sources of information. The source’s health becomes the journalist’s health. A reporter assigned to cover a governor or a senator with presidential potential would be short-sheeting his career by savaging his subject. Better to ride the escalator up with the politician and his staff from the statehouse to the White House.
Meanwhile, the astute politician (businessman, celebrity, sports star, academic, etc.) or members of his staff know the value of having a trusted reporter who can convey both good and bad news to the public. If news is sourced anonymously, the public never need be any the wiser about how and why the stories were planted.
Great post about a Afghanistan/Pakistan article in the New York Times totally attributed to unnamed sources. The author counts 24 separate anonymous sources to which the report is attributed:
The source confusion is so rampant that the article approaches unreadability due to the difficulty of tracking who is who. For example, in the sentence “The discussions with Mr. Baradar and the other Taliban were in their early phases, but they seemed promising, the Afghan official said,” we have to go up several paragraphs to remind ourselves who this “person” “is.”
Surely we could get a few of these sources on-the-record. Perhaps we no longer try.
Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton had three different instances of academic cheating while attending the University of Florida and faced potential expulsion from the university, according to a source.
Newton, considered the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, attended Florida in 2007 and 2008 before transferring to Blinn College, a junior college in Texas. He first violated Florida’s student honor code by cheating in a class during his freshman year, according to the source.
According to the source, after the student said he had turned in a paper, he and the instructor went through all the submissions and discovered that Newton had put his name on the paper in question.
This report could turn out to be true but that doesn’t mean it’s ethical to publish it. Thayer Evans’ story is based on one, unverified anonymous source.
The author makes no attempt to verify these allegations — even with one other unnamed source. (That technique was once common in journalism; however, practitioners have appeared to abandon it over the last decade.) Furthermore, Evans offered no clues as to the source’s identity or how he came about the information. Is he a casual friend or someone who works for the university? What are his motivations for releasing this information? Also, Evans fails to explain why the source asked for anonymity — presumably because the source is breaking a law by divulging the information. That should be stated clearly in Evan’s article.
In my opinion, this type of reporting represents a clear abuse of anonymous sourcing. At times, journalists must rely upon unnamed sourcing to report the news. Those reports would be received with more credibility if other journalists did not abuse the technique.
You guessed it. One, unverified anonymous source. The Press Trust of India published this report a few days ago that claimed President Obama’s trip to India would cost $200 million a day.
“The huge amount of around $200 million would be spent on security, stay and other aspects of the Presidential visit,” a top official of the Maharashtra Government privy to the arrangements for the high-profile visit said.
The report spread like wildfire and ended up in a few mainstream media accounts. Since then, many outlets have gone on to debunk the account as an extreme exaggeration. (The true cost of the trip is probably more like $5 million per day.)
Another reminder that we should take information attributed to one, unverified source with a grain of salt. Perhaps the press should think twice about granting that type of anonymity.
Here’s a link to Arthur Brisbane’s column in which he grants a former military officer anonymity to question the ethics of the Wikileaks dump. Brisbane has been on the job for about a month and has yet to write a column bemoaning the use of unnamed sources at his newspaper. Former public editors Daniel Okrent, Byron Calame, and Clark Hoyt all criticized the paper’s occasional over-reliance upon unnamed reporting. To my knowledge, they never wrote a column using an anonymous source.
Here’s the quote Brisbane received in exchange for anonymity:
“Analysis is not nearly as damaging as reports,” he said, drawing a distinction between the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks material. Field reports like these make it possible “to get into the mind of the enemy. Anytime you do that you gain a tremendous advantage.”
To Brisbane’s credit, he offered a description of the source and the reason he requested anonymity — both explanations help offset the damage to transparency anonymous sourcing creates. Still, such an innocuous quote doesn’t seem to require anonymous attribution. Could Brisbane not find anyone willing to go on-the-record to describe the difference between analysis and a report?
I hope the ease with which Brisbane grants anonymity in his column isn’t a harbinger of his attitude toward their use at the New York Times. Okrent, Calame, and Hoyt did a good job chastising their overuse — I’d rather see Brisbane join the club, rather than join the journalists who abuse anonymous sourcing.
Interesting article about the move to limit anonymous comments from newspaper websites:
The more I researched the history of American news media, the more I realized that our profession’s disdain for anonymous commentary is built upon a myth. Anonymity isn’t anathema to American democracy; in fact, anonymous speech is exactly what the framers of the First Amendment had in mind. On a philosophical level, anonymity allowed opinions to be considered on their own merits, without regard for who was stating them; on a practical level, it gave people a way to disagree with leaders without getting beaten and/or thrown in jail.
Good points. He’s talking about anonymous commentary rather than anonymous sources used by journalists–but, I think there are some parallels. Yes, the public sphere does benefit from occasional anonymity, particularly when ideas could not come to light otherwise. But, the overuse of anonymity–with no clear motive or benefit–should be curbed.
Phil Corbett, the standards editor for the New York Times, issued a memo to the staff this week emphasizing the rules surrounding anonymous sourcing at the paper. The memo diverged little from previous policies. He did take reporters to task for “boilerplate” explanations explaining anonymity. He recommends offering more robust explanations, such as:
- “out of fear for his safety.”
- “out of fear of retaliation from X.”
- “because parties to the negotiations had promised to keep them confidential.”
- “because the company has threatened to fire workers who speak to the press.”
- “because Politician X insists that his aides not speak to reporters.”
- “to avoid antagonizing Official X.”
- “because disclosing grand jury testimony can be illegal.”
A final reminder, on the most basic point. While anonymous sources are sometimes crucial to our journalism, every time we rely on anonymity, we put some strain on our credibility with readers. As all our guidelines emphasize, we should resort to anonymous sources only for newsworthy information that we can't report any other way. Anonymity should not be invoked for trivial, obvious or tangential information, or for quotes that add little of substance. And it should not be used as a mask for personal attacks.
The New York Times provides an extremely detailed account of the acrimony between BP and U.S. officials as they battled to plug the Gulf oil spill. The article offers specific information about what happened including embarrassing confrontations between the individuals involved. The report is notable for the lack of one thing — unnamed sources. All of the information is attributed to named officials including top BP officials and even the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. Evidence that anonymous sourcing and informative reporting are not necessarily synonymous.
Great column from the Washington Post ombudsman pointing out that the newspaper doesn’t follow its own rule regarding unnamed sourcing:
For decades, ombudsmen have complained about The Post’s unwillingness to follow its own lofty standards on anonymous sources. Readers, who care about the quality of The Post’s journalism, persistently object to anonymity they see as excessive and incessant. The problem is endemic. Reporters should be blamed. But the solution must come in the form of unrelenting enforcement by editors, starting with those at the top.
Matt J. Duffy wrote his dissertation on the use of unnamed sources. He teaches new media and journalism courses at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Duffy worked as a journalist for many years including stints at The Boston Herald, The Nashua (NH) Telegraph, the (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger and the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal. He's served as a reporter, copy editor and news editor.
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