The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours
Twice over the past two weeks, New York Times reporters got taken for long rides by anonymous sources who ultimately dropped them off at the corner of Mortified and Peeved.
The first embarrassing trip for the Times came on May 31, as the paper alleged in a Page One story that a federal insider trading investigation was “examining” golfer Phil Mickelson’s “well-timed trades” in Clorox stock, according to “people briefed on the investigation.” On June 11, the Times rowed the story back — citing anonymous sources again, namely “four people briefed on the matter” — calling the original story about Mickelson’s role “overstated.” Mickelson did not, the paper reported, trade shares of Clorox.
Heads bowed, the new Times article explained the error: “The overstated scope of the investigation came from information provided to the Times by other people briefed on the matter who have since acknowledged making a mistake.”
Gotta love the wording. The people briefed made a mistake, not the Times for relying on anonymous sources.
The Times got its second joyride in a June 3 Page One story about Bowe Bergdahl. A “former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into the private’s disappearance” claimed that before Bergdahl fled his unit on June 30, 2009, he left a note in his tent expressing his disillusionment with the Army and the American mission in Afghanistan, and stated that he was leaving to start a new life. This marked Bergdahl as a deserter for many in the press.
But the assertion was false, according to a June 6 Page One story in the Times. Again, the Times cited unnamed sources to correct the mistakes of its original anonymous source: These new anonymous sources had read a classified military report about Bergdahl, completed two months after his disappearance. The report made no mention of a goodbye note in Bergdahl’s tent, which likely means the note never existed.
The Times contacted its original anonymous source — the former senior military officer — for an explanation of how he could have been so wrong. He now recalled having read about the Bergdahl note in a field report, but “was unable to explain why [the note] was not mentioned in the final investigative report.”
Instead of condemning the Times for so recklessly depending on anonymous sources, I’d rather praise them for reminding readers why they should discount anything a shadowy unknown source is allowed to say in a news story. Shielded from public accountability and defended by the journalists who rely on them, anonymous sources pretty much have their way with the New York Times and Washington Post, which tend to rely more heavily on them than other print outlets. In the past four days, the Post cited unnamed sources in at least 18 pieces and the Times did the same in 17 stories ranging from the Iraq civil war to a smartphone app that predicts what a user will type next.
How did anonymous sourcing become the rule rather than the exception in American journalism? Journalism professor Matt J. Duffy informs us in a new (and securely paywalled) paper that anonymous sourcing was sufficiently rare in the first three decades of the 20th century that none of the journalism textbooks and guides he examined made mention of the practice. The first textbook mention Duffy encountered was published in 1955 — An Introduction to Journalism: A Survey of the Fourth Estate in All Its Forms, by Fraser Bond. According to Bond, anonymous sources appeared primarily in foreign diplomatic reporting and in those cases that reporters wanted to attribute information from the president.
The proliferation of anonymous sources appalled journalist and journalism professor John Hohenberg in his 1960 textbook, The Professional Journalist. In the earlier era, Hohenberg wrote, editors generally insisted that the sources of news be identified. “The presence of a n anonymous figure, who could not be described in any way except in relation to what he represented, was almost an affront to many reporters,” he wrote. As the editorial bars to anonymous sources lowered, Hohenberg continued, newspapers allowed their eagerness for news to permit nameless spokesmen, and the practice spread to manure the less prestigious beats.
Duffy regards the Washington Post‘s Watergate coverage (1972-1974) by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as the watershed moment for anonymous reporting, as anonymous sources crept into practically every reportorial niche, including sports.
All major newspapers have policies about anonymous sources, and largely ignore them and editors largely don’t enforce them vigorously. In the past decade top editors such as Al Neuharth of USA Today and Leonard Downie Jr. of the Washington Post have criticized the practice, campaigning in their own pages against anonymity. Press critics, ombudsmen, public editors, and standards editors have howled about anonymous sources, to little avail. (In 2008, I devised a crowdsourced spreadsheet to collect the more egregious examples of anonymous sourcing, but I soon become overwhelmed by the volume and surrendered. I wish Times public editor Margaret Sullivan the best in her current AnonyWatch project, which tracks “gratuitous, anonymous quotations” in her paper.) The practice has become so normalized that a single-sourced, anonymous assertion about a desertion-type note can make it on to Page One of the Times with no corroboration.
Anonymity benefits sources by allowing them to feed their versions almost unimpeded to the press if they locate a gullible or corrupt reporter. Anonymity benefits reporters, too, by potentially increasing their byline counts, by giving them “scoops” (however spurious or short-lived), and by signaling their availability to other anonymous sources.
The downsides of anonymity, of course, are too many to list in a column, but here are two: Anonymous sourcing reduces the pressure on official sources to take responsibility for their utterances. And it promotes the gaming of news outlets, with anonymous sources gravitating to the most pliant reporters and editors. Neither is good for the news.
Do anonymous sources have any place in journalism? Obviously there’s a difference between listening to anonymous sources and masked whistleblowers and putting into print what they say verbatim. I have nothing against anonymous sources who help guide reporters toward the verifiable — I just draw the line at routinely printing what they say.
Several years ago in New York magazine, writer Kurt Andersen made his case for anonymous sourcing, pointing out that one hundred times as many on-the-record lies make it in to print than anonymous ones. While this may be true, on-the-record lies are much easier to hunt down and strangle than anonymous ones. In the long run, on-the-record liars injure themselves. Anonymous ones injure journalism. When the New York Times bestows anonymity upon Tony Awards Administration Committee members for stories, as happened last week, we all know the practice has gone too far.
I concede that it’s nearly impossible to break a national security story without turning to some anonymous sources. (If only each of us had a Snowden stash!) But even then, I put more stock in the journalists that buttress anonymously sourced stories with so many facts they can’t be knocked down. Among the best journalists plowing this field is Dana Priest of the Washington Post, whose approach I applauded several years ago.
The only good news about anonymous sourcing comes from Duffy’s earlier study (with a co-author) that examined the years between 1958 and 2008 and notes that the practice appears to have peaked in 1978. “The frequency of unnamed sourcing in 2008 decreased to levels not seen since the late 1950s,” the paper stated. Which is to say that the flood has retreated from the high-water mark but we’re still waist deep in its drift. My advice: Keep your news nose high, or you’ll drown in this stuff.
Journalism prof Matt J. Duffy will be a visiting assistant professor at Berry College this fall. Don’t be a wise guy and send anonymous email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My always-on-the-record Twitter feed refuses nobody. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: Bob Woodward, a former Washington Post reporter, discusses about the Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo