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Abuse of anonymous sources still bane of big-time journalism

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The phrase “spoke on condition of anonymity” has appeared in about 160 Washington Post stories this year, says Post ombud Andy Alexander. Since Jan. 1, The New York Times has used the phrase 240 times, says its public editor.

The Post knows better, Mr. Alexander writes:

The Post has strict rules on the use of anonymous sources. They’re spelled out in detail — more than 3,000 words — in its internal stylebook. But some of those lofty standards are routinely ignored. Others are unevenly applied.

Anonymous sources have their place in news gathering. Whistleblowers who make charges of malfeasance against governments or corporations need protection against reprisal. Victims of sexual assault similarly have been granted anonymity to protect against reprisal or demonizing. Sources in crucial national security stories may need protection. Sometimes, the grant of anonymity is the only way to obtain information that will serve the public interest.

“Anonymous sources are critical to newsgathering — and to informing readers,” writes Mr. Anderson. “Without a guarantee of confidentiality, many sources wouldn’t share sensitive information on corruption or misconduct.”

But far too many journalists and their editors use anonymous sources routinely without more critical assessment of the consequences. So should such journalists be surprised at the erosion of their credibility?

You know anonymice when you see them:

• said one of the FBI agents involved with the case who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
• said a senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity when discussing internal decision-making.
• said one Democratic strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Obama campaign has banned any comments on the selection process.
• The advisers—who, along with the diplomatic official, spoke on condition of anonymity—
• a former Countrywide executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to discuss the program.
• said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
• The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue
• said a member of local union bargaining team, who insisted on anonymity because union officials said they would not negotiate in the news media.
• according to two sources close to the negotiations.

These anonymice were published last year in The New York Times, the Post, the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal. Slate’s Jack Shafer and intern Kara Hadge collected them and placed them in a database — complete with a five-point ranking system of the merit of the mice. (Oh, it’s fun. Go read more of these.)

Some anonymice have merit. Here’s one of Mr. Shafer’s examples from the Post:

Several EPA officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that throughout the process, White House officials instructed the agency to change their calculations with the aim of reducing the “social cost of carbon,” a regulatory term that reflects the economic burdens stemming from greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Shafer rates this as creditable: “Don’t you love it when bureaucracies battle one another? This anonymouse is worth the bother.” His sarcasm aside, EPA officials needed protection from a White House that undercut and misrepresented the work of EPA scientists, adversely affecting public policy.

Mr. Shafer says, “Often a journalist has no alternative to attributing his information to an anonymouse when reporting, say, a criminal investigation or from a war zone. Likewise, many national-security stories cannot be reported without citing unnamed sources. The NSA story, the CIA prison story, and the torture story could not have been undertaken without anonymous sources.”

As an example of appropriate use of anonymice, he cites the Dana Priest rules. (Ms. Priest is a national-security reporter for the Post.) The best reporters, Mr. Shafer argues, dig for detail from anonymice:

They’re disciplined about their use of anonymous sources, and give more credence to whistleblowers than blowhards. They present multiple sources, increasing the likelihood that the information is accurate. They serve their readers, not their sources’ agendas. And the information they publish is remarkably specific—proving dates, locations, events, circumstances, participants, quantities, and the like … [emphasis added]

Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ public editor, writes that the newspaper’s policy says anonymice should be “a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way.” [emphasis added]

True, many stories of public interest relating to crime and national security may need anonymice. Anonymous sources led to reporting by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada on the BALCO steroids scandal for the San Francisco Chronicle. (Then again, some of the sources proved a tad shady, raising some old questions about anonymice.)

The Post and most large news organizations have policies regarding use of anonymous sources. But are they properly adhered to?

The Times‘ Mr. Hoyt writes that the newspaper’s policy forbids some uses— but that doesn’t prevent them from appearing in the newspaper:

The policy says the newspaper will not allow personal or partisan attacks from behind a mask of anonymity. Yet an anonymous Yankees official could trash Alex Rodriguez (“His legacy, now, is gone”), and an anonymous Jets official could say that the team did not want to sign Terrell Owens because he would have poisoned it and torn up the locker room. A competitor of an Internet start-up was allowed to slam its business model without his name being attached to his belittling quotes. [emphasis added]

Anonymous sources, used properly and improperly, are here to stay. And it’s not just traditional media anymore. Blogs have become notorious for abuse of anonymity. So have other social media.

So what do readers (and viewers; TV does it, too) do when confronted by an anonymous source in a news story — or blog post? Just ask one question.

Cui bono? Who benefits from the anonymity?

Slate’s Mr. Shafer includes that information in his database. If the perceived benefit is not for the reader, then the anonymouse is, well, probably bogus. Over the past few years, I think the benefit of anonymice has shifted even further to the source. Anonymice float trial balloons on policy. They goad opponents behind anonymity. They belittle, undercut and lie about someone or something, all to the anonymouse’s advantage. The advantage increasingly goes to the source because reporters and editors allow it.

So why do reporters continue to use such cunning, deceitful anonymice? Two reasons.

First, overwork. There are simply fewer reporters these days. The revenue crisis in the newspaper industry has seen thousands of reporters laid off or bought out, especially those with years, even decades, of experience. The talent pool is shallower. Fewer reporters with lesser experience feel the pressure to do more stories — stretching their professionalism, perhaps, too far.

Second, preservation of access. Reporters working beats may have to use an anonymouse against their better judgment — to make sure the anonymouse doesn’t shut them out of future stories.

Sometimes, the public interest is well served by use of anonymous sources. But, as two reader representatives of major newspapers write, anonymice have become more a vice than a virtue. Readers are the losers in this framing game.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 20, 2009 at 10:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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