I’m going to repeat myself here, but journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories.
Jack Shafer has a great post on “anonymous sources,”* prompted by the New York Times walking back from two stories it had based on unnamed sources (stories you probably read or heard about that apparently falsely disparaged golfer Phil Mickelson and former prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl). I encourage reading Shafer’s piece and won’t go into detail on it here.
But remember this is the newspaper that reported false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then published reporter Judith Miller’s explanation, “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.”
That was the weakest explanation of journalistic malpractice of anything I’ve heard, and that includes reporters who blame plagiarism or malpractice on being busy or rushed or on careless note-taking.
The Times apparently didn’t learn or has forgotten the important and difficult lessons it learned in the Miller case.
It’s kind of incredible to me that any journalists don’t understand this, but your sources are nearly always wrong. Not about everything, but usually about something. Verification is your job, not the source’s.
Sources can be wrong for a variety of reasons, innocent as well as malicious (some of these reasons apply to on-the-record sources, but I’m focusing on unnamed sources here):
- They are contemptible liars who are playing you and want to avoid accountability.
- They are rumormongers passing along unreliable information and want to avoid accountability.
- They are passing along second- or third-hand information that has lost some accuracy on its path to you. Whether they believe it or not, you need to verify it.
- They are unsure about the information and don’t want to be the source and presume you will verify the information.
- They are giving you information that was accurate but is now outdated.
- They are relying on their memory. Memories can always be faulty.
- They honestly received misinformation (sometimes sources have bad sources) and are passing it along in good faith.
- The source’s printed or digital source of information may have a typo or a word missing.
- The source may have misread or misheard something.
I probably missed a few reasons that reporters get mistaken information, but the point is, we get erroneous information all the time. Our job is to find the truth and to verify the facts that appear important enough for us to publish.
By asking skeptical questions, we can determine (or rule out) some of the problems above. Sometimes we have to go to other sources or documents or videos for confirmation. Sometimes we decide to wait on publishing a story, or some facts that would be good for the story, because we don’t have it nailed down yet.
But when we publish inaccurate information, that’s our fault, not the source’s. Verification is our job. Sometimes the source’s job is to play journalists and get us to publish lies. Sometimes the source is honest but lacks our skepticism or our verification skills. Why the source may be wrong is secondary. Accuracy is the journalist’s job and one of our most cherished values.
I’ve already gone on longer than I intended. You should read the Shafer piece instead of reading me any more. But I’ll say this one more time: Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories.
Here are other things I’ve written on confidential sources:
I also wrote the first draft of a document on confidential sources for the ONA’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project.
*I won’t repeat here my complaint about the term “anonymous” to describe a source the reporter knows but chooses not to name. You can read that explanation here.