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Posts Tagged ‘anonymous sources’

I’m leading a workshop today for the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference on using unnamed sources.

I’ll discuss points made in posts about using unnamed sources, including one on persuading people to talk for the record about difficult topics (and my 20-years-later CJR piece about one of the sources) and another on using information from unnamed sources to persuade other sources to talk for the record. I also will talk about the importance of power and eagerness in granting confidentiality, and suggest we should not quote spokespeople for powerful people and organizations without using their names.

I also mention a couple of posts by others about email encryption for journalists.

Here are my slides for the workshop:

And here are some tweets from the session:

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NYT sourcesThe New York Times finally has a new and (hopefully) improved process for handling stories using unnamed sources. The process is outlined in a memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy and Standards Editor Phil Corbett, and was reported Tuesday by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

The memo outlines which editors need to sign off on different types of uses of unnamed sources. As a frequent critic of the Times’ overuse of unnamed sources, I applaud the effort to be more demanding of reporters seeking to use them. I agree with Sullivan’s assessment:

This is a sensible, moderate and necessary plan. The devil, of course, is in the enforcement. The Times often has not done an effective job of carrying out the policy it already has, one element of which states that anonymous sources may be used only as “a last resort.”

If the Times editors uphold high standards in approving use of unnamed sources, the new process will be a huge step forward, ending the frivolous and needless use of confidential sources while still leaving the Times positioned to deal with informed source who sometimes are the only way to tell important stories on such matters as national security and law enforcement. (more…)

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Eric Nalder adviceIn last week’s post on interviewing reluctant sources, I cited Eric Nalder‘s advice on “ratcheting” to gradually get some or all of a source’s information on the record:

At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn’t too damning and say: ‘Now what about this thing you said here? Why can’t you say that on the record?’ If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: ‘Well, if you can say that on the record, why can’t you say this?’ And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.

Eric, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, responded on Facebook with more advice for dealing with reluctant sources (I added a link):

  1. If you already possess information the source would be curious about, use that to your advantage in approaching them. Former colleague Pete Carey approached a crucial source in New Orleans – post Katrina – and said, as the man was closing the door, “I didn’t come here to ask you questions, I just wanted to let you know what I know.” The door opened and the rest is history.
  2. Finish every initial encounter with the suggestion that the source will want to know – as time goes on – what you have discovered and what you plan to publish. Of course, you’ll need extensive personal information to re-contact them: cell phone number, home phone number, email address, home address, office address and, perhaps, some additional info (DOB, SSN) in case you lose track. I’ve gotten the whole nine yards that way. In one case, we were able to track a man’s criminal activity using what he gave me.
  3. Deeply background every source you approach, preferably ahead of time, and I mean scorched earth, without spooking the more sensitive ones.
  4. Sometimes my most aggressive backgrounding activities – including contacting neighbors, colleagues, etc. – have caused a reluctant source to contact me, instead of the other way around. People who contact you – rather than you contacting them – tend to be more supplicant, which can be an advantage to a reporter.
  5. Always ask sources for a list of their friends and enemies (sometimes this line of questioning requires subtlety). Then ask what each enemy would say about them.
  6. Never argue with a person about their reluctances. Simply interview those fears. You’ll be amazed at the results of that approach.
  7. In extreme cases – where sources must remain anonymous – get them to sign sworn affidavits. An added benefit — your readers will find these affiants more believe-able (see our Brock Adams investigation).
  8. Final point – the vast majority of sources should be on the record and all methods, including ratcheting, should be employed to assure that.

Thanks to Eric for adding this advice to what I offered in last week’s post. I also recommend reading his “Loosening Lips” handout, from the best workshop I ever attended on interviewing.

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In a couple of different contexts recently, I’ve had interesting discussions with journalists about the differences between dealing with confidential sources who are feeding you tips and using confidentiality to even start a conversation with a source who doesn’t want to talk to you.

However you handle confidential sources (as a reporter, an editor or a news organization), this is a fundamental difference that changes nearly everything about the situation and how you address it.

One simple example: My friend Dan Gillmor argues that journalists should reveal the identities of unnamed sources who lie to them. He makes some excellent points, and I think that could and perhaps should be part of the agreement with an eager source who contacts a reporter and wants to leak information to you. But I think the consequence of breaking your promise of confidentiality gives you no chance to persuade a reluctant source to tell you anything. Beyond the issue of intentional lying, part of the source’s reluctance might be that he or she has incomplete knowledge, or only second-hand information. If errors on the source’s part will be treated as lies to be publicly rebuked, you’re not getting that interview. The source doesn’t want to talk to you anyway; confidentiality is the only way to start a conversation.

The dynamics are entirely different depending on the source’s willingness to talk. The reporter’s position shifts from demanding to pleading. (more…)

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I presented a webinar Wednesday for the Society of Professional Journalists on using (and reducing the use of unnamed sources).

I discussed points made in previous posts about using unnamed sources, including one on persuading people to talk for the record about difficult topics and another on using information from unnamed sources to persuade other sources to talk for the record. I also talked about the importance of power and eagerness in granting confidentiality, and suggested we should not quote spokespeople for powerful people and organizations without using their names.

I encourage using the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code tool, which has a section to guide decisions on how to use unnamed sources.

Here are slides for the webinar:

Interested in a workshop?

If you’d like a workshop or webinar for your organization, on unnamed sources or one of the many other topics I teach, contact me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.

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SullivanI’m disappointed that the New York Times screwed up again in its over-reliance on unnamed sources. But I’m pleased that this screwup finally appears to have prompted a Times examination of this biggest weakness in our nation’s most important news organization.

Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who has been a more persistent and effective critic than I of the Times’ promiscuity with unnamed sources, reported today that mistakes in the Times reporting on the visa screening of terror-attack suspect Tashfeen Malik finally drew a commitment to act:

I talked on Friday to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to one of his chief deputies, Matt Purdy; and to the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton, who edited the article. All described what happened as deeply troubling. Mr. Baquet said that some new procedures need to be put in place, especially for dealing with anonymous sources, and he said he would begin working on that immediately.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

First I’ll note that Baquet visited LSU this month and addressed the use of unnamed sources in his Q&A with students and faculty after an address in the Holliday Forum.

Of course, that tweet oversimplifies what Baquet said in response to the question, but it was not a detailed response. He cited national security reporting as an area where using confidential sources is essential to the excellent reporting the Times has done through the years.

This was an important national security story, but those stories demand not only greater use of unnamed sources but greater insistence on documentation and verification from those sources and others.

I’m in the hospital and don’t have the strength to say much new about this. Sullivan covers it better than I would if I were at full speed. I’ll just quote Sullivan again (but you should read her full post), then link to previous posts about this persistent problem at the Times (followed by a late-Friday update and some Twitter response):

The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

Previous posts on NYT use of sources

Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources

New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections

New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards

Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories

Applause to the New York Times for effective use of an on-the-record source

Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting

Jonathan Landay elaborates on Judith Miller’s flawed Iraq reporting

Do I despair for the New York Times? No, but I’m often disappointed and pleased

Eric Nalder responds

About the same time that I was posting this, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder replied on Facebook to my post about Sullivan’s original post (I hadn’t yet shared this post there). His advice on vetting investigative stories is helpful and important as the Times reassesses its use of unnamed sources and its verification of what they tell you. With Eric’s permission, I am adding his comment to this post:

Nalder

Nalder absolutely nails the Times’ failure here. The reporters should have been demanding of the sources and the editors should have been demanding of the reporters: Show me a tweet. Show me a screen grab. If we’re reporting that our visa screening process missed her open embrace of jihad, we need to show that threat, even if it’s in a foreign language. We’re the New York Times, we can find translators.

Nalder, by the way, far surpasses my own journalistic credentials and those of the vast majority of New York Times reporters. He won Pulitzers for investigative reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and on corruption in a federal housing program for Native Americans. He knows how to nail down facts on important stories.

I have cited Nalder before on his effective use of “ratcheting” to persuade reluctant sources to go on the record. It’s a technique that probably wouldn’t work on a national-security story like this, but it illustrates the sophistication of his experience and technique in this area.

If I were Dean Baquet, I might start addressing this topic by asking Nalder if he’s available to do an investigation of Times’ reporters dealings with unnamed sources and the vetting by Times reporters and editors of the information that sources provide.

Twitter responses

End notes

Margaret Sullivan: Sullivan also told Poynter today that she will complete her run as public editor when her second two-year contract expires this September. On this issue and more, she has been far and away the best public editor the Times has had (and the others were all good). We first met nearly 10 years ago when she was editor of the Buffalo News. I don’t know what her next step would be, but if I were hiring a newsroom leader, journalism dean (or endowed chair), media critic, columnist, media organization executive or almost any other journalism job, she’d be at the top of my list of people to talk to. I’ll be interested to see where she goes next and wish her well in whatever lies ahead.

My hospital stay. This is my first blog post here in 13 days. I’m not sure if that’s a record hiatus since I started this blog, but if not, I bet it’s close. My stem-cell transplant has been a rough experience, with more than a week where I could barely muster the energy for a few emails or social media posts a day, if that. But the cells are making new, healthy blood. I may be home next week, and I’ll definitely be blogging again before the end of the year.

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NYT carsonI have taken the New York Times to task occasionally for overuse of unnamed sources. So I join my friend Erik Wemple in saluting the Times for excellent use of an on-the-record source for a story about efforts to educate presidential candidate Ben Carson about foreign affairs.

Consider how differently this paragraph would read without the source’s name:

‘Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,’ Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so ‘we can make him smart.’

Without the name, I might wonder how high in the Carson campaign this “top adviser” really is. I would wonder if the adviser is really sitting in these briefings with Carson or hearing about them second-hand. I would wonder if the adviser is about to get fired and venting frustration on the way out the door. Some readers might wonder if the adviser really exists.

Instead, I can use Google to learn quickly that Clarridge is a former high official in the CIA (author of A Spy for All Seasons). I can read an interview with Clarridge and judge for myself how credible he is or I can read about his role in the Iran/Contra scandal of the 1980s.

I’m usually not going to do that much research, but the very fact that the source used his name, whether I know anything about that person or not, means that the source stands behind his account of what’s happening int he Carson campaign. The fact that he’s willing to take the heat from Carson and his supporters gives the story credibility.

If the Times writes that story based on an unnamed source, the Carson campaign’s response would be a well-deserved rebuke to the Times for using “anonymous” sources, an easy way to attack the credibility of a story. Instead, the Carson campaign weakly accused the Times of “taking advantage of an elderly gentleman.” That, of course, raised the question of why the campaign was taking the advice of such a feeble-minded person (and, as Wemple pointed out, why Carson business manager Armstrong Williams suggested the Times reporter talk to Clarridge).

You can love Ben Carson or you can hate him (as I noted earlier, meme-makers love him). You can agree with his views on foreign affairs or disagree. But with Clarridge on the record, you know that at least one of his advisers doesn’t find Carson to be a quick study on foreign issues.

Congratulations (and thanks) to the New York Times for reporting this story strongly with a named source.

Earlier posts on using unnamed sources

New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections

New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards

Washington Examiner story on unnamed sources

Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources

ESPN’s Ray Rice reporting made responsible use of unnamed sources

From 2005: Unnamed sources should have unpublished opinions

Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting

Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories

Anonymous sources: Factors to consider in using them (and don’t call them anonymous)

A 2005 handout on confidential sources: ‘You didn’t hear this from me …’

Updated lessons: Use confidential sources to get on-the-record interviews

Wall Street Journal lets cowardly sources avoid accountability in Goldman Sachs story

Spokespeople should be named; set the bar high for confidentiality

 

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