Sources Say? Says Who?
In journalism, every article starts with a “lede” paragraph. According to NPR, the lede “should pique your readers’ interest and curiosity.” It should “make the reader want to stay and spend some precious time with whatever you’ve written.” And the lede needs to fit in your story – per Bob Woodward, a lede will either summarize your article or provide an anecdote that sets the scene for your overall narrative. If, say, I was going to write a piece about best practices in journalism, I’d better have a damn good lede. So here it goes.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted with the Bill of Rights in 1791, provides the accused in a criminal proceeding the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” and “to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor[.]” In other words, if someone is going to accuse you of a crime, you have the right to know who it is, they have to make the accusation to your face, and you get to ask them questions.
See what I did there? I demonstrated that I was aware of a rule, and then I ignored it entirely. Kind of like when someone is an asshole, and then brushes it off by saying aloud, “sorry, I’m an asshole.” Knowing you’re an asshole doesn’t make you not an asshole!
I see a lot of that kind of behavior in journalism today. People with degrees in the field from good schools obviously know best practices, and they will absolutely police those best practices – at least toward people who aren’t part of the club.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’ve read or at least heard of the recent reporting by Laurel Pfahler (subscription required) and Pat Brennan about Brenner’s alleged request for a transfer out from FC. Laurel’s article cited “a source with knowledge of the situation.” Pat, for his part, simply said the Enquirer “confirmed” the reports.
I’m a naturally curious person. (Curious like a cat, which is why my friends called me “whiskers.”)
So I want to know: Who is this source with knowledge of the situation? How did the Enquirer confirm the reports? Neither story provides the answer (I mean, I have a guess, but that’s just a guess).
Now, I want to be clear about exactly what I’m saying. I’m not impugning Pat or Laurel as journalists qua journalists – I subscribe to both, they do great work, and I encourage anyone who isn’t subscribed to get on that if they can afford it. I’m not belittling the work it takes to break and report out a story. I’m also not casting any doubt on the veracity of the reporting. If Pat or Laurel say a source told them Brenner requested a transfer– or that a source told them anything else for that matter – then there is no doubt in my mind that someone told Pat and Laurel that Brenner requested a transfer.
But that’s not the whole story, is it? People say things all the time. And the things they say might be only partially true, or misleading, or false. He/him said, she/her said, they/them said. Rashomon, and all that.
Like it or not, the identity of a source is absolutely part of the story. By knowing the identity of the source, the reader can weigh the speaker’s credibility against the other participants in the story, look at their claims in the context of the overall narrative, and consider whether the source might have an agenda. But when the source is anonymous, the reader is left with nothing else but to give the source the credibility of the journalist making the report. And when the journalist is someone like Pat or Laurel, then the source is getting a lot of credibility that they might not deserve.
As another example (really, the ur-example in FC’s short history), look to Jeff Carlisle’s hit piece on Jeff Berding. The only person quoted in the article willing to put his name to his quote is Berding himself. Berding’s biases are obvious, but we’re left with no information at all about what might be the biases of the other sources.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists, “[f]ew ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources. ” Yet the practice is rampant, and not just in sports. In political journalism, stories are published every day from anonymous officials complaining about this person or that person in whatever administration is in power, and (to me) it’s often nothing more than careerist people planting stories with friendly journalists to advance their own career interests. Or a mailroom intern in the Department of Agriculture can inflate his ego by being identified as “a source within the administration.”
The SPJ Code of Ethics “contains two pointed statements on anonymous sources”:
1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.
The Associated Press says that it allows anonymity “in carefully defined circumstances” that have three necessary elements: “if the information is from a credible source with direct knowledge; if it brings to light important facts that otherwise would remain in the shadows; and if the information can be obtained no other way.” Examples the AP provides of important stories that warranted anonymous sources include Watergate and Abu Ghraib.
How many stories have you read that relied on anonymous sources rose to the importance of either of those?
Elsewhere on the AP’s website, they say that “[w]e must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity” and that “when it’s relevant, we must describe the source’s motive for disclosing the information.” Those seem like two pretty good guidelines to me, but I rarely see them followed.
Now, you might say, “This is pretty rich coming from an anonymous writer on The Post.” And I’d say that the appeal to hypocrisy is a logical fallacy. And anyway, our identities are pretty apparent to anyone who looks hard enough, and we’re entirely transparent about our agenda (pro-Berding and also Third World Maoism).
But look, I’m not asking you to take my word on anything. I’m making an argument, which you can evaluate on its merits. I’m not making factual claims about other people that you either have to believe or disbelieve.
All that said, I fully understand the pressure journalists are under. A lot of people print a lot of articles relying on anonymous sources, and those sources have probably reached a point where they expect anonymity as the standard operating procedure. If a journalist is unwilling to grant anonymity, then the source might simply go somewhere else. So it’s the kind of thing that won’t change until there’s a systemwide change. And the only place where a systemwide change can start is from the readers: Until readers hashtag DemandBetter than anonymous sources, they’re going to keep getting anonymous sources.
I’m going to close on a hypothetical. Let’s say, for example, that I was a person who believed that players (like, say, Geoff Cameron) shouldn’t be “cancelled” for their politics. And let’s say I extended that to players who might have some rumors floating around about them about some misconduct or at least questionable or problematic behavior – like, it’s important to give everyone due process and not rush to judgment. And, let’s say, if I was that kind of person, one of my gripes about so-called “cancel culture” would be that it doesn’t give people due process. For instance, let’s say, people might get “cancelled” based on unsubstantiated rumor, rather than evidence. I wouldn’t like that, and I would want everyone to get a fair hearing.
That fair hearing would include the right to know who your accuser is, right? And letting the accuser remain anonymous, without some good reason, wouldn’t really be due process, would it? But then if I went ahead anyway and drew conclusions based on unsourced rumor, I’d be doing “cancel culture” wouldn’t I?
What I’m ultimately saying is, it’s as easy to know a rule as it is to rationalize a reason for ignoring that rule, particularly when the cost of ignoring that rule is low. But if we’re going to keep paying for journalism (and we should), shouldn’t we expect it to meet its own standards?