Would you believe any news that was reported and used and misused by a reporter who says the information came from “unnamed sources?” When I hear that phrase it immediately tells me these people are trying to fool the American people. If the information is credible, why wouldn’t the unnamed source want to be credited with reporting it.
The use and misuse of unnamed sources has gotten to the point that the news media is a “laughing stock” throughout the world and the people have shut down their listening to it and have their own sources of news which they can depend on. The following is a good example on how ridiculous the news has become.
The following was reported years ago but is still noteworthy.
Dick Rogers Published 4:00 am, Sunday, July 24, 2005
KARL ROVE becomes the nation’s most identifiable anonymous source. Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, spends her days in prison for refusing to identify a source widely believed to be Rove. Matthew Cooper, who writes for Time magazine and escaped a jail sentence after acknowledging he secretly had spoken to Rove, appears before a U.S. Senate committee to endorse a federal shield law for journalists.
It is all high-stakes stuff — a legal, political, journalistic clash of the giants that’s reverberating through newsrooms, courtrooms and both houses of Congress. But it is also a window on the use and, in some cases, misuse of unnamed sources in everyday journalism.
Hardly a day goes by that a story doesn’t rely in some way on sources who can’t, won’t or shouldn’t come forward and be named. Some of these people never appear in print. Instead, they provide story tips, point reporters to key information in out-of-the-way filing cabinets or help them to figure out where the skeletons are buried. Others show up in direct and indirect quotes with attribution such as “according to a source” or “one unnamed official said. ”
These people, whose motives vary, may not bring down world leaders or change the course of a war, but they’re essential to helping this and other newspapers pierce the corporate veil in search of corruption and peer closely into the workings of government to ensure the public’s business is done.
Think Enron. Think BALCO. Think just about every politician who feeds at the public trough until someone blows the whistle.
Without unnamed sources and the ability to protect them, a newspaper is hobbled, challenged to counterbalance the self-preserving spin that inevitably comes from officialdom.
That’s why I worry about whether readers trust blind quotes from “knowledgeable” sources (should there be any other kind?) and whether The Chronicle uses them too casually.
Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein recently asked me to review the paper’s use of anonymous sources to determine whether its practices matched its policies.
After reading 60 stories and columns that depended wholly or in part on unnamed sources, I came away both impressed and concerned.
Sometimes, though, the use of unnamed sources appeared easily avoidable or inappropriate. In one case an “informed source” is allowed to commit the journalistic equivalent of a drive-by shooting — criticizing the performance of a colleague from behind a shield of anonymity.
What bothered me most is that the paper too often failed to give readers basic information about why sources were allowed to avoid identification and why their comments ought to be believed.
In 80 percent of the cases, the paper said nothing about the sources’ motives for remaining anonymous. Were their jobs in jeopardy? Were they potentially in danger? Or was the paper just making it easier for sources to avoid embarrassment or criticize without risk?
Half of the time, the paper failed to give readers clues to the sources’ expertise or insight. If my paper tells me that an “informed source” says someone is mishandling the city budget, it’s asking me to put complete faith in both the paper and the source. If it tells me that a budget analyst who is worried about losing her job but has direct knowledge of the process says the money is being mishandled, I have reason to take the information more seriously.
These can be delicate matters. In some situations, even a skimpy description can be enough to identify a source to his or her boss. So there needs to be careful discussion between source and reporter.
The issue here isn’t just the danger of journalistic mischief, a la Jayson Blair; it’s also the danger of mischief on the part of sources who know they can escape accountability.
Bronstein said in an interview that The Chronicle’s use of anonymous sources had become too informal, not through anyone’s fault but more through inattention. (You can hear his comments at SFGate.com. Click on the “podcasts” link.)
Since my review of the paper’s practices, Bronstein has toughened the policy on the use of anonymous sources. Among other things, the paper now requires a conversation between writer and editor to make sure that the decision not to name is a last resort and that the benefits appear to outweigh the drawbacks. Stories that rely on a single unattributed source must be approved by a deputy managing editor or higher. As a matter of policy, the paper is required to do a better job of explaining why unnamed sources should be trusted.
It’s a good start. But the real test isn’t what appears in the policy, it’s what appears in the paper. I’ll report back in a few months on whether use of anonymous sources has changed.
That is our problem – the news media is abusing their right to “unnamed sources.” When is the last time when you heard who these unnamed sources are?