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.
Unnamed sources hurt credibility
Let’s start with two conflicting facts about journalism:
- Some important stories can’t be told without using unnamed sources, either because of valid fears by sources or because organizations in government or business have either official policies or workplace cultures that forbid all but official spokespeople or top officials from speaking for the record (and sometimes even they won’t comment publicly, except for promotional purposes).
- Some journalists and news organizations give in too readily to demands for confidentiality.
ESPN deals with teams and leagues where many people are not allowed to talk freely to the media, unless the journalists are doing puff pieces about action on the field. ESPN also is one of those news organizations that lets sources hide from accountability too readily. I wish ESPN would demand sources’ names more often.
If this story were about a rumored trade or a pending hire of a coach, I’d be pretty critical of this much used of unnamed source. But this is an important story about connections and influence in the league and how they mattered more than responding forcefully to an outrageous incident of domestic violence by an NFL star. I think the story would be stronger with named sources, but the nature of the story justifies granting confidentiality.
Consider power and eagerness
Key considerations in these matters are the power, position and eagerness of the source. And power is relative. Mark Felt, famed as Deep Throat in the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting, was powerful, but not as powerful as President Nixon and the White House officials Bob Woodward was investigating. And Felt was reluctant to talk to Woodward at all. Confidentiality was the only way Woodward could talk to him.
Scooter Libby and Richard Armitage were similarly powerful when they told journalists about Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Bush administration, and his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA agent. They were more powerful, though, than Miller and Plame. I’d give them confidentiality to give me information about more powerful people in the Bush administration, but not to hurt someone less powerful. And, while we don’t know the details of their discussions with reporters, I’m pretty sure they were eager to dish that information, not reluctant (Armitage claimed his release of the information was inadvertent). Based on power and eagerness, I would not grant them confidentiality.
ESPN describes its sources as “team officials, current and former league officials, NFL Players Association representatives and associates, advisers and friends of Rice.” The story says most sources spoke with the reporters “on the condition of anonymity, citing the NFL’s just-launched, self-described independent investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the former FBI chief.”
I’d like a better reason than a pending private investigation to grant confidentiality. But team officials and current league officials certainly have reason to worry about their jobs and friends of Rice might fear his temper (though now would be an unlikely time for him to lose it). I might have pushed harder to get some union representatives or former league officials on the record, but these are people involved in pro football, some of them in the Baltimore Ravens organization, describing the actions of Commissioner Roger Goodell and the top officials of the Ravens, including owner Steve Bisciotti. Certainly these people were talking about people more powerful than them. And I suspect the reporters usually contacted reluctant sources, rather than having eager sources approach them. On this basis, I’d say the use of sources was responsible.
What is on the record?
It’s important to note that this story wasn’t based solely on unnamed sources. Rice’s trainer and close friend Kyle Jakobe was on the record and had some of the most important information in the story. A single named source significantly helps the credibility of your story. Beyond what you quote from that person, if his account overlaps (and agrees with) some of your unnamed sources, you not only have a named source to use for those facts, but your confidence in the rest of the unnamed sources’ story grows.
The story also is consistent with Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome’s interview with the Baltimore Sun, which ESPN quoted, and with Goodell’s statement that he handled the case wrong. Of course, the story went well beyond those statements, but they lend it credibility.
The Associated Press story that reported the NFL had received a copy of the video inside the elevator, showing Rice punching his fiancée, also bolstered the credibility of the story’s basic point: that the NFL and the Ravens weren’t telling the full story.
Seek documents and other sources
When I talk to unnamed sources, I am clear with them that I don’t want to attribute anything to them. I note that their unwillingness to speak on the record raises credibility questions with me and with my readers or viewers. So I ask sources to help me verify what they are telling me: Who else knows this? Do you have documentation (reports, emails, photos, texts)? I want the confidential source to guide me to sources I can identify or to documents that validate what the source is telling me.
The ESPN story says the reporters talked to more than 20 sources, so I presume that some of them provided verification for each other’s accounts. Multiple sources don’t mean that something is true. If you hear from two sources who only have second- or third-hand information from the same original sources, you’re just dealing with an echo chamber or the rumor mill, until you talk to the original source. But if two people who were present for a conversation remember it the same, that strengthens both of their credibility (not just for that incident, but for other things they told you).
I suspect that the ESPN reporters have a fair amount of documentation that they cannot quote because they were given it in confidence. But if they obtained such documentation it strengthened their confidence in the sources and their accounts of events. For instance, read the opening of the story, which includes no attribution:
The seven-month scandal that is threatening Roger Goodell’s future as NFL commissioner began with an unexpected phone call in the early morning hours on a Saturday in February.
Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens’ director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video — shot from inside the elevator where Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious — the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.
Sanders quickly relayed the damning video’s play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 94-year history.
Why doesn’t that passage include attribution to “a Ravens official” or some such individual? Possibly because the reporters got a copy of an email or text to team executives (note the vagueness of how Sanders “quickly relayed” the information). I suspect a source showed the documentation to a reporter on condition that he wouldn’t quote from it directly.
Other passages in the story appeared to be based on documentation as well as sources’ memories. This passage gives a glimpse at the reporters’ documentation efforts:
One of Rice’s friends provided the text’s content to “Outside the Lines,” which confirmed through two independent sources that the number listed belongs to a cellphone regularly used by Bisciotti.
I think it’s likely that a source showed that text message to a reporter or that sources showed Bisciotti’s number in their phones to confirm that he was the source of the messages.
Jakobe was the original source of the information about the texts and probably shared the original messages (which are quoted). But the fact that the reporters sought confirmation and documentation even from a named source indicates that they regarded verification as essential to this story.
The more documentation I have, the more confident I am in my unnamed sources, especially if I can quote documents and even if I can’t quote them.
Go back to reluctant or unnamed sources
In a post last year, on a 1997 case involving domestic violence by a football player, I recounted how I had a draft based on unnamed sources and used it to get two sources who had not commented, including the University of Nebraska’s then-football coach Tom Osborne, to speak for the record.
Eric Nalder encourages “ratcheting” sources into talking on the record, choosing something non-controversial that a source said and asking if she can go on the record about that. Then he’ll choose something a bit more important and ask if that can be on the record. Once a person agrees to talk about something for the record, Nalder sometimes gets a whole interview on the record. Or you can get enough from the person to just use what’s on the record and try to confirm the rest somewhere else.
The ESPN story, of course, can’t say whether the reporters tried these or other techniques to persuade people to talk for the record. But I certainly would have tried one or the other.
For instance, I would have tried to run the opening passage past Darren Sanders, the Ravens’ security director, to see if he would confirm any of it or all of it. The story says, “The team declined to make Sanders available, saying he was traveling.” I’d have tried further to track him down for comment, and I presume the reporters did. Even if he couldn’t comment for the record, he might confirm the story in confidence.
Based on what I can read, I think the ESPN reporters handled confidentiality issues responsibly and published a fairly credible story, even though the extensive use of sources kept it from being as credible as you’d like.
More on confidential sources
I’ve written a lot about confidential sources (no doubt the reason Bryan asked my thoughts on this). I wrote the first draft of the Online News Association’s ethics-code building block relating to confidential sources. Here are earlier posts from this blog: