anonymous sources

Washington Post ombud takes on unnamed sources

The Washington Post ombudsman is taking his paper to task for overusing unnamed sources as well:

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. And despite the importance of those standards, many Post staffers lack a thorough knowledge of the policies and confess they haven’t reviewed them in years.

News organizations can pay dearly if they’re not vigilant about sourcing. At minimum, credibility can suffer. At worst, a damaging journalistic transgression can occur.

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

But anonymity can be overused and abused. Sources can make false or misleading assertions with impunity. Journalists can inflate a source’s reliability or even fabricate his or her existence.

Read the rest.

By | September 3rd, 2009|Uncategorized|1 Comment

‘Free Press’ Editor Defends Anonymous Sources in Michigan Football Scoop

The Detroit Free Press defends the use of anonymous sources:

Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press, defended the use of anonymous sources in his paper’s blockbuster Sunday story revealing alleged abuses of NCAA practice rules by the University of Michigan football program.

The report, by Michigan beat reporter Mark Snyder and columnist Michael Rosenberg, included interviews with six current and former Michigan players but did not identify them. The report alleged that the coach, Rich Rodriguez, had exceeded NCAA limits on training and practice sessions, claiming they were forced to put in more time than the rules allowed.

The story has already prompted an internal investigation by the university, while one former player has come forth on the record since the story ran to acknowledge such abuses occurred.

‘We had six players who did extensive interviews — current and former players — separate and apart from each other that described the same scenarios,’ Anger said, adding that four other players acknowledged anonymously the abuses had happened, but did not sit for interviews.”

“We always make an effort to get people on the record, we say that they appear more credible if names are in the paper,” Anger added. “But there is a great power that a coach has. He determines playing time and success. Playing time is everything and so is peer pressure. You don’t want to hurt teammates or the program.”

This is about as close as I can come to begrudgingly approve of this practice. Six people confirming the same information. The need for anonymity clearly explained. Still, you’re making an incredibly serious personal allegation at a person who can only wonder about his accusers. Hmm…

By | September 1st, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Dangers of anonymous sources

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.

By | August 16th, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Judith Miller writes in the WSJ about the case of the former USA Today reporter who wrote about “a person of interest” in the Anthrax case. The judge in the case is threatening to fine the reporter $5,000 per day if she doesn’t reveal her anonymous sources:

I share Judge Walton’s desire for justice for Dr. Hatfill, whose life is in ruins due to official and leaked statements about him that have not been substantiated. But why should Ms. Locy and independent journalism pay the price for former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s reckless statement in 2002 that Dr. Hatfill was a ‘person of interest’ in the anthrax inquiry? As Ms. Locy reported at the time, this was a non-legal category Mr. Ashcroft apparently invoked to imply progress in an investigation that was even then all but stalled.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that if Judge Walton fines Ms. Locy for refusing to identify sources who had nothing to do with Dr. Hatfill’s dire predicament, ‘it will be very risky for future journalists to write anything about a suspect who has not already been arrested and indicted.’

There is a remedy. Last fall, the House of Representatives approved, by a veto-proof majority, a bill that would protect the identity of confidential sources — unless the information is needed to prevent terrorism, imminent death or significant bodily harm, or involves certain trade secrets, health or financial information, or classified information whose release would cause ‘significant harm.’ None of these exceptions would apply in Mr. Hatfill’s case.

The Senate version of the bill would compel a reporter to identify a source in a civil lawsuit like Dr. Hatfill’s only if the testimony or information being sought is “essential to the resolution of the matter.” Since several sources whom journalists relied on have already come forth, and since Mr. Ashcroft is basically responsible for this mess, Dr. Hatfill’s case can be resolved without Ms. Locy’s information, or her insolvency. I urge the Senate to act now.

I’m not sure this is the right solution. Maybe journalists should just quit printing so much information from anonymous sources. The result may be an uptick in credibility.

Indeed, USA Today reduced the use of anonymous sources by 75 percent in 2005 following the Jack Kelley scandal, in which their star reporter admitted to fabricated dozens of quotes from anonymous sources. A Pew study at the time found that 52 percent of those polled thought that the use of anonymous sources was “too risky” and could lead to faulty reporting. Maybe the respondents are on to something.

This bill would essentially legalize a questionable reporting practice. Given the state of media credibility, that’s not the direction we should be traveling.

By | March 7th, 2008|Uncategorized|0 Comments