Anonymous sources

Sometimes, anonymous sources are necessary in journalism. Think of Watergate. Without “Deep Throat,” the story wouldn’t have been told.

In today’s journalism, anonymous sources are still used, and often make breaking news stories possible. But some critics argue they are used too frequently, or incorrectly.

anonymous.JPGImage courtesy of Mediabistro.com.

Jack Schafer, a media critic for Slate.com has written several columns about anonymous sources. One of his columns included a spreadsheet of “anonymice,” his word for reporters and publications that rely too heavily on anonymous sources.

What is most surprising is that this spreadsheet only focuses on articles that appeared over the course of 17 days. Quite a few instances of anonymity, don’t you think?

For example, take this quote from a Washington Post article about the president’s reaction to the BP oil spill.

“But to those tasked with keeping the president apprised of the disaster, Obama’s clenched jaw is becoming an increasingly familiar sight. During one of those sessions in the Oval Office the first week after the spill, a president who rarely vents his frustration cut his aides short, according to one who was there.

“‘Plug the damn hole,’ Obama told them.”

Who actually heard the president say this? Someone who was in the Oval Office. But who? How can we know that this is actually what the president said, if we don’t even know who heard him say it?

It’s about credibility. Not just the reporter’s credibility, but the publication’s as well.

Kendyl Salcito, writing for the Center for Journalism Ethics of UW-Madison, says of anonymous sources:

“Some ‘anonymous sources’ were unable to verify claims, uninterested in the truth, or dedicated to the demise of an official. In some cases, the sources did not exist at all.”

And it happens more often than any journalist would like to admit.

In the 1980s, Janet Cooke wrote a story for The Washington Post about an eight-year-old heroin addict called “Jimmy.” She won the Pulitzer Prize for her story. It was eventually discovered that Jimmy was not real, but that Cooke had fabricated her sources. She returned her Pulitzer and resigned from the Post, her credibility destroyed.

How can you trust someone who lies? The public already has enough difficulty trusting journalists.

Joe Davidson wrote in a column for Poynter Online:

“The use of anonymous sources undermines the trustworthiness of an industry that already generates too much mistrust. One way for journalism to get a credibility boost is for reporters to shun a hand that feeds them.”

And there are several incidents of abusing “anonymous sources.”

Jayson Blair plagiarized his work for The New York Times. He had often made up interviews with people he had claimed to be anonymous. He also claimed to be writing from places he’d never been, when in reality he was sitting in his apartment. The Times issued a 7,500 word article which investigated his lies.

Todd Purdum wrote a story about President Bill Clinton, and, well, messed up.  Almost all of his sources were anonymous. His article claimed Clinton’s 2004 heart surgery had altered the former president’s mind. It also claimed that Clinton had been “seeing a lot of women on the road.” Purdum made quite a few errors in this article as some of his sources either lied or got the facts wrong.

In cases where sources may be very real, but wish to remain anonymous, there are still dangers, Davidson said.

“Those sources provide information, but only if the informant is not revealed. It’s a practice that allows government and business officials to put forth a message without being held accountable. The reporter gets the quote or the scoop and the hidden hand helps to shape the news. Both get what they want, but not without a price.”

When all is said and done, if an anonymous source turns out to be wrong, the price is truth.

Anonymous Sources Toles

Image courtesy of B12 Solipsism.

So is the use of anonymous sources worth the risk?

What do you think?

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