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Posts Tagged ‘anonymous sources’

The New York Times often and flagrantly violates its own standards for attribution.

Executive Editor Dean Baquet ignored my call earlier this year for him to lose his famous temper about the Times’ casual and inexcusable promiscuity in the use of unnamed sources. I will try again (and invite him to respond), only this time I’ll include another issue of attribution: linking to digital sources.

First two disclaimers:

  1. I’ve written a lot about these two subjects before, both regarding journalism in general and regarding the Times. I apologize for any repetition. I will try to minimize and include links to previous posts at the end (and sprinkle them where relevant in this post).
  2. The Times is unquestionably, in my view, the most outstanding organization in journalism, with some of the highest standards in journalism. That’s what makes its daily disregard of its own standards in these two important areas so maddening.

I am writing about these attribution issues because they collided this week in two outstanding posts by others: (more…)

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I have more advice for Dean Baquet: It’s time to pound a wall again. You need to get angry about the promiscuous use of unnamed sources by the New York Times staff and let your staff know that the practice is hurting your organization’s credibility and it has to stop.

Baquet generally doesn’t need my advice. Long before becoming Times Executive Editor, he had soared higher in the journalism stratosphere than I ever will. But Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has identified heavy and lax use of unnamed sources as a serious issue for the newsroom.

And the Times did follow a bit of my advice later last year, when I called on it to a better job of linking, and got a bit of response, not from Baquet, but from Standards Editor Phil Corbett and Editor for News Presentation Patrick LaForge, who urged Times staff to link more and better (linking to me and citing one of my examples). So I’m trying again.

Baquet didn’t follow my advice last fall when I suggested that he should tweet more. His response was thoughtful and spurred a lot of discussion. But he still has tweeted only twice. I suggest a series of tweets on identification of sources. That should get their attention. That and a little fist-pounding.

I have long contended that newsroom conversations are more important than ethics codes when it comes to achieving ethical journalism, and the New York Times and unnamed sources are Exhibit A.

The Times’ 2008 Guidelines on Integrity state on the topic of “anonymity and its devices”:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having ‘insisted on anonymity,’ we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources – does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

That’s a sound policy (though I’ll comment on it in more detail in an appendix at the end of this post).

A 2010 reminder to the staff from Standards Editor Phil Corbett demanded better explanations of the reasons for granting confidentiality to sources and reminded Times staffers of the policy about informing editors about who sources are.

The Times problem is not the policy, but the fact that the newsroom’s common practice doesn’t follow the policy. The Corbett note acknowledged that problem, and it continues egregiously, as Sullivan’s AnonyWatch posts this year have documented. In her Oct. 18 post, she wrote:

I launched a feature this year called “AnonyWatch,” intended to draw attention to the gratuitous use of unnamed sources, and I’ve written on this many times, to little apparent avail. The overuse of anonymous sources still flourishes in The Times.

Her year-end AnonyWatch roundup, published last week, should be embarrassing for the Executive Editor and his staff. Sullivan’s post says Baquet had planned to deal with the issue:

The executive editor Dean Baquet told me last fall that he was about to urge his department heads to quash such quotations, in keeping with the Times policy of using anonymous sourcing only as a last resort.

In that Oct. 18 post, Sullivan had this to say about that conversation:

I talked to the executive editor, Dean Baquet, about this subject last week, asking him why Times editors and reporters don’t follow the paper’s own written rules, which allow granting anonymity only as a last resort. He agreed that editors need to tighten up on this: “It is something we need to be more vigilant about.”

Mr. Baquet said that, until that point, he had not spoken forcefully to department heads about the practice but that he intended to do so at their next meeting. He said that the use of confidential sources is sometimes necessary and important. “They’re never going to go away,” he said, “but we need to limit it more than we do.”

Baquet took some heat, probably deserved, for a wall-slamming temper tantrum recounted by Politico in 2013, and I’ll bet he’s been practicing anger management pretty well, including probably at that department-head meeting, because the Dec. 29 Sullivan post documents more “ridiculous” use of unnamed sources.

A reader’s letter cited the Brooks Barnes story, When the Red Carpet Is Rolled Up, a story about Hollywood parties that included this passage:

‘Nobody really had time for me — it was all about the new people,’ she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was afraid of looking bad.

If that didn’t or doesn’t generate a fist-pounding, wall-banging temper tantrum from the Executive Editor, he has taken his anger management too far. In fact the whole Sullivan post should be worth several bangs of the fist. If Times staffers showered like baseball teams do, I’d suggest an everyone-in-the-shower scare-em tantrum straight out of Bull Durham (see the video clip toward the end of this post). Times staffers aren’t kids and they are playing in the big leagues. But they have been lollygaggers of late in granting confidentiality to sources.

Baquet needs to set the bar for use of unnamed sources really high at the Times. Given what I presume to be a lack of showers and bats at the Times, I think a temper tantrum and some tweets should do the trick. He knows how to handle the temper tantrum. But, since I have a bit more experience on Twitter, I’ll provide some help.

You’re welcome to retweet these yourself, Dean. I’d be honored to be your first retweet(s). Just hit the little double-arrow box on the bottom line of the tweet, between the curved reply arrow and the star you’d use to “favorite” a tweet. But, flattering as RT’s would be, I’d suggest putting them in your own words (you’ll get a few more characters if you cut out my repetition of “@deanbaquet tantrum”). The points you make may differ from mine, but I will cheer them, as long as you get mad and address this embarrassment to your great newsroom.

I’ll suggest 15 tweets for you, then add more of my own to contribute more detail to the conversation I hope to start.

If you’d like some help from the Times staff in composing effective tweets, I recommend consulting with Daniel Victor or Karen Workman, two Twitter aces (and former colleagues of mine).

Here are the tweets I recommend, with a few notes by me added between some tweets:

Cut out my long lead-in there, Dean, and you’ll have room to add a link to Sullivan review, for any staff members who might have missed it in the holiday week, maybe even enough characters to add the “ridiculous reasons” phrase from the headline.

Just the process of writing these notes should deter lots of the promiscuity with confidentiality. I can’t imagine a reporter who wouldn’t burst out laughing in chagrin and searching for the delete key about halfway through the draft of the note to the editor explaining the importance of the Hollywood quote, the efforts to get it on the record and the reason for requesting and granting confidentiality.

Dean, your staff follows you on Twitter, even though you don’t tweet. Your silence on Twitter so far has set you up to grab attention when you finally tweet again, and this is a topic about which the Executive Editor of the New York Times needs to grab attention, with the public, the staff and journalists everywhere. A string of tweets about unnamed sources will resound through the newsroom and beyond louder than a fist pounding the wall or an armful of bats clattering in the shower.

More tweets about confidentiality

I think the suggestions above are plenty for me to offer for Baquet directly. The tweets below are simply more contributions from me to the conversation I hope he will start.(But, Dean, if you want to retweet any of them …) I will publish the post after I’ve added the tweets above, and will update this after each of the tweets, noting when I’ve finished the updates:

I should note that the story discussed in that link above was a highly competitive 1995 story the Times was working on, too. I kicked the asses of the Times, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other competitors on that story. Pushing to get sources on the record can take time and cause you to fall behind stories when other organizations don’t follow the same standards. But you also can get outstanding stories they’ll wish they had.

 

Appendices to this post

I considered breaking this into two posts, but all these notes are related to the post above, so I decided to add them here, to make this an even longer post.

I welcome responses

First, I will be emailing have emailed Baquet, Sullivan, Corbett, LaForge and Barnes, inviting any or all of them to respond. I will add their responses if any do. I will add short responses here, but if anyone responds at some length, I will break them out into separate guest posts (as I did with Baquet’s response last year about Twitter), and link to them here. If Baquet responds in tweets, I will either embed them here or curate them in a separate post. If you see this before you receive my email or tweet inviting your response, consider this your invitation.

Sullivan is the first to respond publicly (thanks!):

Baquet told me by email that he’ll take a look, but has not responded after reading. Added late Jan. 5 from that original email: “I put you in that group that disagrees with me but wants the times to do what you see as better. So no worries,” Baquet said in that message. I will update if he responds further.

LaForge’s response: “Margaret covers this pretty thoroughly.”

Thanks to Sullivan (and a suggestion for the Times)

Next, I’ll add my appreciation to Margaret Sullivan for this brief passage in her AnonyWatch year-end review:

As I emphasize every time I write about this, anonymous (or confidential) sourcing is sometimes both necessary and important.

I have no idea whether this was a nod to my campaign to get journalists to start using
“confidential sources,” rather than “anonymous sources,” to describe the sources whose identities we know but choose not to publish. I made that case in some detail in a 2013 post already cited above, so I won’t repeat it here and didn’t want to detour the post above, but I want to note it here and thank Sullivan for using the term.

Jay Rosen tweets on unnamed sources

Next, here are some tweets from Jay Rosen about the issue of unnamed sources, which helped inspire this post, along with the Sullivan year-end review. Jay is a powerful and persistent voice on this issue:

The conversation continues on Twitter

I will update through the day with others’ tweets on the topic. I love this example:

Jay, of course, is continuing the conversation:

And others are weighing in thoughtfully, too:

Times Guidelines for Integrity

Again, here’s the passage on anonymity from the 2008 Times Guidelines for Integrity, this time with a few recommendations from me. My first recommendation is to change the heading of the section,”Anonymity and its Devices.” As noted in greater detail in the link above about my campaign to change how journalists discuss unnamed sources, in nearly all cases when we would use a source as anything more than a tipster, the sources are not anonymous to Times reporters. The reporters know them well but grant them confidentiality. The result makes the source anonymous to the reader, but I believe we further hurt our credibility by using the term ourselves when we vet these sources thoroughly. We don’t quote anonymous phone callers or Internet commenters whose identities we can’t learn, though we may use their tips to find information we can verify. Those are truly anonymous sources. So I’d change all uses of that word below. Here’s that section on”Anonymity and its Devices,” with other comments:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. (Buttry note: Just a digital update: print should be changed to publish.) When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) (Buttry note: I like that this passage is shorter than previous Times policies. But I think it still needs a stronger statement about situations that justify confidentiality. My suggestion: Reporters should grant confidentiality in most cases as a path to obtaining on-the-record information, either from later persuasion with the source or using the source to guide you to documentation and/or sources who will speak for the record. Opinions have no validity without names. We should use only information from confidential sources, and only when we are confident they have firsthand access to that information. Factors to use in granting confidentiality or in using information from confidential interviews include whether the source is more or less powerful than those whom the information could hurt and whether the source is eager or reluctant to give information to the Times. Reliance on confidential sources does not lessen our responsibility to ensure the accuracy of our stories. In fact, the lack of accountability for unnamed sources increases the reporter’s responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the information. Any story submitted for publication that uses any information from unnamed sources should include a note to the editor explaining why the information is important to Times readers, how the reporter tried to get the information on the record and why the source requested and the reporter granted confidentiality.)  The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having ‘insisted on anonymity,’ we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources – does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

 

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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:

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Bryan.
  2. 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…)

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spjlogo-for-headerThe Society of Professional Journalists adopted a new Code of Ethics Saturday at its meeting in Nashville.

I am pleased that SPJ updated a code that I described four years ago as profoundly outdated. But I’m disappointed that SPJ didn’t provide better leadership in this code.

Before I address my disappointments, I’ll say what pleases me:

Why I’m pleased

I’m pleased that SPJ has a more timely, relevant code. The code has been outdated for years, and I applaud progress. I’m pleased that the code mostly improved since I criticized the first draft in two lengthy blog posts in April and improved a bit more since I criticized the third draft in July. It even improved since Friday morning, when I was one of many during an Excellence in Journalism conference session who criticized the “final draft” that was approved by the Ethics Committee Aug. 28. In a Friday evening meeting, the SPJ Ethics Committee and Board adopted some of the changes suggested by Andy Schotz in a blog post and at Friday morning’s discussion. That I wish for more doesn’t change the fact that this is progress and I do appreciate that. (more…)

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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): (more…)

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Granting confidentiality to sources is one of the grayest areas of journalism ethics and one of the areas where we need extensive discussions of standards.

Nearly every journalist agrees that it’s better to name our sources than to withhold their identities. And nearly every journalist agrees that we sometimes have to agree not to name sources in order to tell some important stories. But we don’t all agree on when to grant confidentiality. And we’re not always consistent in deciding when to grant confidentiality and whether to publish information based on unnamed sources.

Since I blogged that we need more detailed advice on ethical issues, I’ve been planning to update the ethics handouts I developed for the two series of ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2009, under a pair of grants from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. I’ve gathered my detailed discussions of ethical issues into a category on the blog and will make them a series that will continue for a while.

I’m also posting my handout from those workshops on dealing with confidential sources, but here I’ll outline and discuss factors journalists should consider in whether to grant confidentiality to a source and whether to publish or broadcast stories based on confidential sources: (more…)

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Journalists should always drive a hard bargain before agreeing to withhold a source’s name.

Andrew Beaujon, my former TBD colleague now writing for Poynter, doesn’t think it’s a big deal to let company spokespeople speak without identification:

I’m also a little loath to rip the practice because half the time I don’t think readers care which flack passed on the frequently anodyne statements I’m including.

Andrew was responding to David Segal, who writes “The Haggler” column for the New York Times. In trying to address a complaint from a consumer about a Samsung printer, Segal expressed dismay about a spokesperson who declined to be identified:

When the Haggler wrote to Samsung, a woman named Rachel Quinlan, who works for the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, sent an e-mail that she said should be attributed to a “spokesperson” for the company. She declined to name that person.

Really? A spokesperson — a person who speaks for a living — who wants to be anonymous? Not only does this sound ridiculous, it also makes Samsung seem tin-eared. Actually, that is unfair to tin, which is far more supple than Samsung is in this circumstance. What consumers and the Haggler want when products break is some sense that human beings are trying to fix them. (Note to corporations: the anonymous spokesman is a dreadful idea.) (more…)

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