If you are a frequent GretaWire reader, you know that I have been critical of the media for years with its overuse of anonymous sources. Yes, there are legitimate instances when sources should remain anonymous, but for the most part it is lazy reporting or even just partaking in drive by hits. Use of anonymous sources should be rare – not common but, alas, it has become common. We don’t allow them in the courtroom — we require people making statements or accusations to identify themselves (for the jury of course.)
Let me give you a simple example of how goofy overuse of anonymous sources can be. I remember reading with amusement this summer that I was out at Fox News — and just two months earlier (May) I signed a long term new contract with a raise! Out? not exactly….in fact, I was in…and in for a long time!
And who were the sources for the stories that I was out of Fox? Anonymous sources!
But it gets worse….. after the first story, some journalists copied the earlier stories that I was out …and then sourced each of them as fact. I actually think they thought – in their sloppiness – that they had a source if they repeated what some other journalist published even though it was an anonymous source in the original story. Go figure, right? That’s another problem with anonymous sources - it creates the telephone game …
Of course none of the journalists reporting I was out at Fox called me before publishing their stories (I probably would have gotten permission from Fox to reveal that I had two months earlier signed a long term deal which I did later.)
And of course my contract with Fox is not exactly a national security issue requiring a publication without sourcing. It is just a tv contract! :) That’s another problem — anonymous sources are used on inconsequential stories. No one lives or dies with whether I sign a contract or not — but many thought – wrongfully – it was important enough to report with anonymous sources. Go figure! As important as my contract might be to me…is it worth a journalist’s credibility to write a story based on anonymous sources that turn out to be wrong?
Finally, what anonymous sources don’t realize is that they are often not so anonymous. You can usually figure out who they are – journalists often rely on the same ones (so you google old stories and do some cross checking) or the source is someone who has something to gain.
So…finally, I love that this article (below) was published. Maybe journalists will start looking at how they do their jobs and how they could do them better. Of course we can’t be perfect and I can make mistakes…but we should at least be trying to get right.
Anonymous sources are increasing in news stories, along with rather curious explanations
By Paul Farhi, Published: December 15
According to sources who didn’t insist on anonymity, more and more sources are speaking to the news media on the condition of anonymity for the oddest of reasons.
Politico, for example, reported a speech by Vice President Biden to a progressive group based on the account of a person who spoke anonymously “because the [speech was] by-invitation only.”
The New York Times said one of its sources for an article about Syria asked not to be identified “because of the delicacy of the situation.” The Times accorded anonymity to sources for the same reason — “because of the delicacy of the situation” — in six other articles this year, including one about a woman who fell off a balcony.
The Washington Post, in an article Saturday about the Redskins’ troubles, cited such mysterious sources as “several people familiar with the situation”; “multiple people close to the matter”; “several people with knowledge of the deliberations”; and “one person with ties to the team.” The sources, according to the article, spoke anonymously “because of the sensitivity of the situation.”
Question: Does this help much?
It used to be that anonymous sources — Watergate’s “Deep Throat” was the most famous — spoke on the condition of anonymity because . . . well, because they wouldn’t speak to reporters any other way. Back then, anonymous sources were just “sources” and you, dear reader, had to take our word for whoever they were and whatever we said they said.
Readers noticed, and apparently didn’t like guessing about who was saying what. In 2004, the New York Times surveyed its subscribers on their concerns about the paper. In the wake of flawed (and often anonymously sourced) reporting before the start of the Iraq war, readers said their biggest gripe was the use of anonymous sources, and that it trumped political bias or even delivery problems, according to Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s current public editor.
So, in an attempt at greater transparency, news organizations began explaining why their sources weren’t being identified by name. The idea was to offer readers a little peek under the veil of anonymity.
The practice is now widely employed. A search of the Nexis database turns up thousands of news stories each month in which people speak on “the condition of anonymity” for all kinds of reasons. Or would-be reasons:
■The Boston Globe quoted a “Democratic operative” who praised the organizing abilities of a local labor union without being identified by name “because he did not want to offend other unions.”
●The Post wrote about a dinner meeting in Richmond between Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D), citing people who spoke anonymously “in order to discuss a private event.”
■The Los Angeles Times reported on a business deal, citing a person “familiar” with the companies involved who was quoted without being named in order “to preserve a relationship with both companies.”
“Frankly, this kind of sourcing is ridiculous,” says Alicia Shepard, a journalist and NPR’s former ombudsman. She adds: “I get it that [news organizations] are trying to be transparent, but it doesn’t enhance the believability of the anonymous quote. The only thing worthwhile about the convoluted sourcing explainers is how funny they are.”
In fact, such descriptions can do more harm than good, says Matt Carlson, an associate professor at St. Louis University and the author of “On Condition of Anonymity: Unnamed Sources and the Battle for Journalism,” published in 2011. Rather than enhancing a reader’s understanding, the descriptions used by reporters can be disingenuous and misleading about a source’s affiliation or motives, Carlson says.
He cites the classic misdirection case: Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller once agreed to identify one of her anonymous sources, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, not as a senior White House official but as “a former congressional staffer,” a technically accurate but wholly misleading description.
Some sources have important reasons for not putting their names next to their words, says Kevin Z. Smith, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee. Whistleblowers can lose their jobs if unmasked, he notes, and those in dangerous areas face worse. A recent Los Angeles Times story, for instance, quoted a resident of a gang-infested Southern California neighborhood who did not want to be identified “for fear of retaliation.”
But many journalists resort to boilerplate formulations to describe their anonymous sourcing, Smith says. Among the typical constructions: saying a person wasn’t “authorized” to speak on the record, or was granted anonymity because the news hasn’t been “formally announced yet.” Says Smith: “We just seem to take any excuse [sources] toss out. . . . It’s awarded summarily for just about any reason.”
One common bit of journalistic shorthand might be unintentionally revealing. The New York Times recently quoted a movie-studio executive who commented on another studio without being identified so “he could speak candidly.” Which raises another question: If anonymous sources are the ones speaking candidly, what are named sources doing?
That suggests the obvious benefit of anonymous sourcing: It often elicits more, and more truthful, information than the on-the-record kind.
Smith, CLICK HERE