When anonymous sources disappear entirely

By Felix Salmon
June 21, 2009

John Gruber notes the weird lack of sourcing in the WSJ’s article about Steve Jobs’s liver transplant:

There are several highly unusual aspects to the Journal’s story. First is that they offer no source for the information — not even an “according to sources familiar with the matter”. But yet they state it flatly as certain fact that Steve Jobs had a secret liver transplant in Tennessee. Blockbuster news with no sourcing whatsoever. To call that curious is an understatement. And, coming in the opening paragraph of a page one story, it could not be a careless omission.

The basic tenets of journalism are simple. One reports facts and how one knows them.

This is true, as far as it goes. But it seems to me that although the lack of sourcing is unusual, it actually reflects quite well on the WSJ — and I wouldn’t be too unhappy to see more of it in future.

The WSJ is notorious for using the exact same formula in substantially all of its stories which don’t have named sources: “according to people familiar with the matter”. Since no one would ever knowingly report a story based on information from people unfamiliar with the matter, this formula has exactly zero utility for readers.

What’s more, the “according to people familiar with the matter” formula can sound, to the literal-minded, like a little bit of a CYA move. Assuming someone familiar with the matter really did say that X, a story saying “X, according to people familiar with the matter” is technically true even if X is false.

By contrast, here’s the first paragraph of the WSJ story:

Steve Jobs, who has been on medical leave from Apple Inc. since January to treat an undisclosed medical condition, received a liver transplant in Tennessee about two months ago. The chief executive has been recovering well and is expected to return to work on schedule later this month, though he may work part-time initially.

In this case, if the WSJ’s sources are misguided or lying, the WSJ has no recourse — it’s telling us simple unadorned facts. As Gruber says, “if it’s not true, it would amount to one of the biggest mistakes in their esteemed history”.

I, then, welcome the deletion of the lazy and unhelpful formula — it makes it clearer that the WSJ is reporting facts, and is standing foursquare behind its story. Given the choice between a simple assertion and that same assertion backed up by “people familiar with the matter”, I’ll take the simple assertion any day.

The New York Times has a 1,646-word policy on confidential sources which urges reporters and editors to provide as much information as possible about anonymice. It’s honored more in the breach than in the observance, but at least it’s there, which is a good start. The WSJ, by contrast, has never placed much emphasis on providing helpful descriptors of confidential sources: the fact that a story appears in the WSJ should be all that a reader needs to take the information at face value.

Personally, I prefer to see more detailed information about anonymice than the completely unhelpful fact that they’re “familiar with the matter”. But if you take it as granted that the WSJ is comfortable using such a meaningless description, then I think everybody is much better off just dropping the pretense that it’s adding any information at all. The Jobs story, reporting the facts sans any attribution whatsoever, is a significant improvement, I think, on the overworn formula of old. It’ll be interesting to see whether the WSJ goes down this road more often in future — and what readers are meant to make of the distinction between stories which are just asserted, on the one hand, and stories which are sourced to “people familiar with the matter”, on the other.

Update: I asked Dow Jones if they had any comment on this; they replied by saying that “as a matter of policy, we don’t discuss sourcing”.

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