Great column from the NY Times’ public editor about anonymous sources:
The Times recently got tangled in the middle of a struggle between Michael Jackson’s family and the executors of his estate, John Branca and John McClain. Quoting “people close to the Jackson family,” the paper said that lawyers for the entertainer’s mother, Katherine Jackson, “were considering whether to challenge the two executors on the grounds that they took advantage of Mr. Jackson’s addictions, which incapacitated him and impaired his judgment.”
That anonymous shot violated the newspaper’s written rule against letting unnamed sources make personal attacks. It raised suggestions of misconduct without saying what “took advantage of” meant, and without presenting any corroboration.
… After the appeal from Bates, a second editor’s note on Thursday did the right thing, declaring that the anonymous accusation should not have been published, with or without comment.
Readers complain to me constantly about anonymous sources in The Times, and I see them sometimes used in ways that seem too casual, in violation of the paper’s own high standards. Top editors say they are trying to instill vigilance. The Jackson episode shows how vital that is: one lapse can mean big trouble.
Great example of why anonymous sources are so toxic. This incident will make my dissertation, mayhaps.