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Covering up the News

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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I have criticized newspapers' use of anonymous sources, most recently in some comments that were published in the Public Editor's column of The New York Times.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/opinion/25pubed-lett.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=mattimore&st=cse

Anonymous sources make it difficult for readers to judge a reporter's credibility, and the public's assessment of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in more than two decades, according to a Pew research survey released in September. Only 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight.

It appears to me that there is a large gap between what newspapers say they do regarding anonymous sources and what they actually do. A newspaper like The New York Times, for example, has a lofty set of standards, but doesn't really enforce its own guidelines.

In a memo which Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times, wrote in 2005, he had this to say in part regarding anonymous sources:

"Our policy on anonymous sources is a good one, and bears repeating. It begins: 'We resist granting anonymity except as a last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable.' The information should be of compelling interest, and unobtainable by other means. We resist granting anonymity for opinion, speculation or personal attacks.

The problem is, the credibility of those necessarily anonymous sources -- and of our work -- is undermined by the casual use of unnamed sources where no such protection is called for.

The responsibility to be vigilant about unnamed sourcing begins with the reporter and runs all the way up to the News Desk.

Sourcing is an area where progress will be measured in increments, and subjectively. There is no reliable statistic that will tell us whether we are being sufficiently vigilant. But here's my subjective standard of success: A year from now, I would like reporters to feel that the use of anonymous sources is not a routine, but an exception, and that if the justification is not clear in the story they will be challenged."
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Now consider a Times story that was published this past Sunday -four years after Keller's memo- under the category of "News Analysis," "Both Iran and West Fear a Trap on Deal." http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/world/middleeast/26iran.html?ref=todayspaper

In the second paragraph the author of the story, David Sanger, writes:
"In Washington, the concern is precisely the reverse. Here, even some of President Obama's aides are wary that Iran is setting a trap, trying to turn the administration's signature offer of engagement into a process of endless negotiations." No aides are quoted by name.

Later in the story Sanger reports:
"In interviews last week in Vienna, the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, diplomats preparing for the inspection of the site near the holy city of Qum made it clear that the West would insist on far more than just visits to the heavily bunkered plant, hard up against a base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The inspectors view Qum as an outer layer of a ball of string -- and they plan on pulling at the strands to discover other secret sites, if there are any.

"How many times have the Iranians told us, 'We've revealed everything,' only to come back and admit that there is much, much more?" a senior European diplomat, who has been deeply involved in developing the strategy to confront Tehran, said last week."

Neither the diplomats in the first paragraph nor the senior diplomat in the second paragraph are ever named.
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Sanger also uses phrases like: "(T)he Iranians contend", "White House officials are" and "(M)any people at the negotiating table expect", to suggest those groups maintain certain positions. Again, none of the people holding those views are quoted.

Without more information, it is difficult to know what steps, if any, Sanger took to get sources on the record. It's impossible to know if an editor at The Times challenged him. What's not so hard to ascertain is that the reader is put in a position by the newspaper essentially where she is asked to "trust us." As the Pew survey results make clear, readers are increasingly unlikely to do that.

The Times policy "on anonymous sources is a good one, and bears repeating. It begins: 'We resist granting anonymity except as a last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable.'" It's high time to begin living up to that lofty ideal.

 

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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