Post by Preston Hamblin Post by AlleyCat
When these "unnamed sources" always turn out to be LESS than nothing,
That hasn't happened a single time.
nonyWatch: When Unnamed Sources Are Flat Wrong
By Margaret Sullivan June 17, 2014 3:42 pm June 17, 2014 3:42 pm
In a blistering column this week, the Reuters media critic Jack Shafer
takes The Times to task for using a particular kind of anonymous source
— the kind who turn out to be wrong.
In two recent cases, he writes, The Times was left “at the corner of
Mortified and Peeved.”
I’ve been writing about the overuse of anonymous sources for months in
this space, as part of my AnonyWatch project.
My view isn’t black and white: I recognize that there are stories —
especially those on the national security beat — in which using
confidential sources is important. And I acknowledge that some of the
most important stories in the past several decades would have been
impossible without their use. But, in my view, they are allowed too
often and for reasons that don’t clear the bar of acceptability, which
should be set very high.
I talked with the business editor, Dean Murphy, on Tuesday about one of
the cases mentioned above: A story that originally said that Phil
Mickelson, the famous golfer, was being investigated for insider trading
related to Clorox. (The article, which had a number of other components,
appeared on the front page and was displayed prominently on the home page.)
About a week later, a correction was added — and a new article
acknowledged the error: The Times had “overstated the scope” of the
investigation. “While investigators are looking at his trading in some
stocks, Clorox is not among them.” (Other news organizations, Mr. Murphy
noted, got it wrong, too.)
The new article, even in debunking the first, also relied on anonymous
sources, something noted by many of the outraged readers who wrote to me
Mr. Murphy said the second article could not be viewed as a true
“corrective story,” in Times parlance, since most of the elements of the
first article were correct. And the second article, he told me, advanced
the overall information about the investigation. “We used it as a
reporting moment,” he said, not just a corrective.
The original story’s sourcing was not taken lightly, he said. He was
aware of who the sources were and that “they were trusted people that we
had no reason to doubt — but they got it wrong.” And, he said, the
authors of the story, “are two of my best diggers,” with reputations for
caution and accuracy.
He added that the alternative to using these sources is not to inform
readers of important news. “That’s the nature of law enforcement
stories,” he said. “Is that good? No. But it’s a reality.”
I asked Mr. Murphy whether any lesson could be drawn from what happened
in this case. He said it served as a reminder of the care needed when
anonymous sources are used.
“This tells us that we need to take it seriously every time,” he said.
“Our default mode is not to allow anonymous sources. The readers are
right to hold our feet to the fire on this, but the same readers are
also served by the information that we provide with stories that are
sometimes necessarily sourced this way.”
I’ll take that a step further. Anyone who reads The Times on a careful
daily basis can see that anonymous sources are everywhere — not just in
sensitive stories from Washington and Wall Street.
I’ve said this before: Editors need to raise the bar for letting them
into stories, and rigorously enforce the existing in-house rules that
say that anonymous sources should be used rarely and only as a last resort.
When sources are nameless, they are also unaccountable. There is no
price for them to pay when they get it wrong. But readers — and The
Times’s credibility — do suffer. And in some cases, so do the
reputations of those The Times is writing about. No “walk-back story”
can fix any of that.
Don’t let sources offer anonymous opinions of others. #
Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be
heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible
rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of
sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the
section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable
information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a
source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and
motives are shielded from scrutiny. And of course, we do not include
anonymous attacks posted on the Web in our reports.
Our word is binding. #
As an ethical matter, we would not want to reveal the identity of an
anonymous source unless that person has consented to the disclosure.
That’s why we take the granting of anonymity seriously.
Keep in mind that the legal protection provided to journalists to keep
source identities, outtakes, or other confidential information secret is
not 100% secure. Courts can compel journalists to testify or reveal
information even when confidentiality has been promised, and refusal to
reveal the information can result in jail time or fines.