Opinion

Felix Salmon

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”.

Comments
12 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I don’t agree with you that un-sourced information–in the “voice of God”–is any improvement from limited anonymous source disclosures.

To declare a new fact as a given, when it is not common knowledge (examples, the sun rises, Kennedy was shot etc), is the old authoritarian approach. It also forgets the why and how [they know] in addition to leaving out who told them.

(Media outlets, more often than not, like to source people and documents as a defensive move. If the fact turns out wrong, they are partly off the hook and can blame the source).

Readers need to know sources in order to judge the quality of information–called transparency. Even if it is from “sources close to the investigation” at least we know they talked to people.

We presume now that the report isn’t in error because the Jobs side has not be screaming foul.

However, if WSJ has proper sourcing for the Jobs claim, you would think they would say so in some form–instead of acting as if their authority is good enough? An extra cloud of doubt–instead of reassurance and confidence– is unnecessarily added(one hopes anyway)for the reader.

The media simply can ill afford this kind of backsliding from transparency. Make me the source for that!

 

Rex Hammock, a Tennessee-based blogger, has some interesting details on the Tennessee side of the story. No one in Tennessee can make the story stand up — yet.

 

Just because you are sick of seeing boilerplate source information doesn’t mean it is useless. I agree with the first commentator that “voice of God” writing can become very misleading, and even a boilerplate “according to XYZ” couches the information by emphasizing where it came from.

I live in Tokyo, and here in Japan the newspapers this “voice of God” practice is very widespread and underscores the assumption that something isn’t news until it appears as a headline. It also lets the sources get away with exploiting the newspapers by geting them to print misleading information without properly citing where it came from. In the US the presumption that citation is required is comparatively much healthier and I hope it will remain, even if the phrasing gets a little tired sometimes.

 

You all, in my opinion, are beating around the bush. Call it what it is, tabloid journalism. WSJ is an extension of the Murdoch, shoot from the reporting style. Why let facts cloud a good story.

 

I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Shearer and Adamu. I see people getting lazier and lazier in their writing/reporting, especially with the advent of bloggers-as-news, leaving far too much ambiguity and room for misconstrual. Unless you personally witnessed Mr. Jobs’ liver transplant, you don’t know that it happened, and cannot simply state it as fact. So-called “news” agencies are forgetting their place, and their responsibility.

Posted by Daven | Report as abusive
 

Newspapers make up stuff and lie all the time. Does it really matter whether they say “according to an unnamed source familiar with the matter” or not before lying to us? Really?

Posted by WarEagle | Report as abusive
 

This actually presents an interesting argument, for sake of rhetoric. In all actuality, the truthfulness of the story will dictate the fortune of the paper – that they have decided not to give themselves an out is a very bold move – legally. With as litigious a world as we inhabit, this actually increases my tendency to believe their story. Murdoch smearing or not, anybody would get sued for libel if their story isn’t true – and these guys just knowingly took away their “out.”

 

Whether a newspaper cites to unnamed sources — or not — makes no difference in a libel suit.

Posted by Noam | Report as abusive
 

To me the real question is..
Did Steve Jobs get a liver ahead of others who my wait years for a downer liver. Or has the transplant situation improves so no one has to wait longer then Mr. Jobs. As for unnamed sources, It’s a violation of federal law to disclose medical information about someone other then oneself.
Look up HIPPA

Posted by Alan | Report as abusive
 

Bad, bad policy. I suppose I could agree that the WSJ is on the hook, but if we’ve learned anything from the past four or five years, journalists are NEVER on the hook for anything. With the constant stream of misinformation we were fed, there has been little or no accountability. A previous poster complained about bloggers, but those that develop a following tend to be far less willing to provide anonymity and far more accountable to their readers. Sad that the “professionals” can’t hold themselves to this standard.

Posted by mjtimber | Report as abusive
 

The difference between traditional news sources and “blogs” is that one expects the traditional news source to have some editorial integrity.

A blogger can say anything as “fact”. One expects a real news source to ensure that the data is absolutely accurate before publishing it as fact, otherwise, one expects the news source to qualify the information as “according to unnamed source” (aka: we can’t verify this independantly).

If they had said “according to a patient at a Tennesse Hospital, Steve Jobs was there to get a liver transplant a couple months ago”. This would have given the right amount of credibility to the news piece.

It is also possible that the news was leaked by Apple and/or Steve Jobs. And because it is a leak, the news outlet won’t say “according to Apple…”.

However, because this type of news is regulated by the SEC and Apple is obligated to release it to shareholders, (the CEO undergoing serious surgery is covered in the “risks” of the company), it will be interesting to see how this pans out with regards to obligation by Apple to release this information to shareholders on a timely basis.

Posted by JF Mezei | Report as abusive
 

“as a matter of policy, we don’t discuss sourcing”.

This is pretty weak sauce, since they weren’t being asked for a comment on their sourcing, they were being asked for a comment on their *policies for (not) discussing sourcing*. It’s funny too, at a meta-level, since the statement they give us here ends up being one on their policy for (not) discussing their policies for (not) discussing sourcing.

Posted by melior | Report as abusive
 

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