Many journalists and news organizations grant confidentiality too readily, sacrificing credibility in the quest of a story. But I think ESPN handled confidentiality responsibly in its reporting on the response by the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL to Ray Rice’s assault on his fiancée.
In a discussion on Facebook, Bryan Sears asked what I thought about ESPN’s use of unnamed sources:
I hate to call people out but Steve Buttry has some serious chops when it comes to the issue of use of anonymous sources and I’m hoping he’d be willing to contribute his thoughts about how ESPN used anonymous sources in the story and what it does to the credibility of the story and are the reporters able to adequately shore up the weaknesses inherent with the use of unnamed sources in such a controversial piece.
Two points before I address the question:
- Thanks for the kind words, Bryan.
- I avoid the term “anonymous sources” unless the source is actually unknown to the journalist (as some callers, emailers and online commenters are). We should never use information from those sources in stories because we have no way of judging their credibility. They can provide great tips, and I’ve written stories that started with truly anonymous sources, but we have to get the information from sources we trust, or we can’t use it. If a journalist knows the source, as ESPN clearly did, we have a basis of judging his or her credibility and motives for requesting confidentiality. As I’ve explained before, I prefer to call these sources confidential, unnamed or unidentified. I think those terms are more accurate than anonymous, and calling them anonymous hurts the credibility of our reporting. I’ll never win this fight to change journalism terminology, but I repeat my argument whenever I address the issue.
Now to Bryan’s question:
First, I should say that I can just evaluate what I see of the ESPN “Outside the Lines” report by Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenberg. The reporters did not tell us everything about what they did to verify sources’ stories. Nor could they. That’s the nature of confidentiality. My analysis will involve some speculation and I might change some of the opinions expressed here if I knew more. I will invite the reporters to comment on this post, though I understand that they may not be able to shed much light. (more…)