Can anonymous sources

Jayson BlairThere’s a few journalists who read this blog. I have a question — were you or were you not taught that you should

  • use anonymous sources judiciously and rarely;
  • use anonymous sources only when other methods for gathering the same information are unavailable;
  • use anonymous sources only for factual information, not for opinion, conjecture, observation or speculation;
  • always question the motivation of sources who don’t want to be identified;
  • never use information from an anonymous source unless it can be verified by a second source.

I was. Not only was I taught that in college. I was taught that in HIGH SCHOOL, for gawd’s sake!

As I’ve watched this whole Jayson Blair scandal unfold, I can only conclude that this basic journalistic guideline was not followed nor enforced by NYT editors. There were numerous points of failure by the Times in its oversight of Blair, but when Howell Raines protests that the newspaper isn’t really set up to catch serial fabricators, I want to remind him that making sure reporters adhere to basic journalistic standards is a good way to begin.

It’s a lesson a number of large and prestigious newspapers need to learn. The use of anonymous sources has become an epidemic.

Think back to the lead up to the war and all of the stories about what the U.S. military was going to do or not do — shock and awe, build up here, build up there, attack in November, attack in Febuary, etc. All of those stories were based almost entirely on unnamed sources.

Now, ask yourself this — is a professional military man ever going to give away the battle plan to some Washington Post reporter?

If these sources were even real, I can think of only three plausible reasons a Pentagon official would want to be an unnamed source in such a story:

  • Use the media to spread disinformation and confuse the enemy.
  • Undermine the political standing of a rival.
  • Puff up one’s own ego by cozying up to a big-time reporter.

I’m dismissing out of hand as plausible any reason that might suggest magnanimity of spirit or altruism. A person possessing military secrets with a real concern about the well being of our troops or the prospects of victory, no matter his political doubts about the cause, would never discuss war plans with a reporter, on or off the record. Setting aside, then, the implausible, we have to ask: Why trust any unnamed source motivated by deception, ambition or ego?

Yet, if the basic rules of using anonymous sources were followed, none of the war plan stories, nor many of the “quagmire” stories that made print during the war, ever would have been published.

It’s not that I’m against these stories per se, because such stories can impart important information to the great national debate, but unless the stories are credible they are worse than meaningless, they are downright harmful. And stories sourced by people who have less than pure motivates, and sourced by people who are not double checked, and sourced by people who engage in conjecture and speculation under the cover anonymity, lack even a shred of credibility.

Yet, such stories see print in major newspapers every day.

I wish somebody like Howard Kurtz, or better yet Howell Raines or Leonard Downie Jr, would read this post, because I would really like to ask them one question: Why have your papers abandoned basic journalistic standards in favor of the sensational stories anonymous sources give you?

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