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Journalistic ethics vs. critical reading - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Journalistic ethics vs. critical reading
Okay, I just ran into an issue in my thinking.

I was reading a book by a journalist, which cited a source who "refused to be named" giving a quote in support of the author's position. As it happens, the book is on media spin. So my first response as a critical reader is, "How can I judge the veracity of this quote or put it in context? I don't know who she's talking to or what his position is! She really shouldn't use a quote without giving readers a chance to verify it and evaluate its importance."

And then I realized: She's a journalist. And what I'd be asking her to do is reveal a source, which is one of those cardinal rules of journalistic ethics, with which I happen to agree. After all, if you're investigating something, then it's not helpful to remove a source of information by pointing out that he is, in fact, a source of information. And that creates a blanket protection of sources. (I'm not sure whether or not that should extend to criminal trials in which a reporter is an actual witness to a crime and the defendant is the source; that's an iffy area, imho.)

So I have these two things that I feel are both important. How do I evaluate what I'm reading? How can I be sure a reporter isn't just making up a quote to support her position if she doesn't tell us where it comes from? Am I meant to just trust my gut instinct that what the source is saying is probably true--in other words, believe it if I already agree with it? Then again, how can a source be protected if he or she can't ask for anonymity, and why would I trust a reporter who broke her word to a source?

It's very irritating to me, because I feel very strongly about having all the facts and information necessary to judge a news item, but I also feel strongly about keeping helpful sources safe from retribution. My brain is having a totally internal flame war.
17 comments or Leave a comment
ashtur From: ashtur Date: October 22nd, 2005 04:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
That "internal flame war" is why I tend to be rather skeptical about anything from the legendary "unnamed source". Not so much that I'm afraid a reporter is making things up out of whole cloth, but without knowing the source, understanding the context of the remarks and information is impossible. That is as important in its own way to understand things as simply having a name on the source.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 22nd, 2005 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Right. I think I would tend to be more trusting of, "Acting on a tip from an unnamed source, I opened an investigation which revealed x, y, and z," in which x, y, and z are the important details. In this case, the person's job was mentioned (news producer) and it was fairly clear from the prose that the context was, "Look, let's cut the crap, you know this is how it is..." But she doesn't make clear whether it was a formal interview or a chat in the newsroom. On the other hand, I could be making up the context because if I were going to give a character that line, I'd know exactly what he looks like and what the setting was... which means I'm basing belief in the statement on my own imagination, which tends to be somewhat active. In this case, I guess I could watch the news and see if it seems to hold up (the quote was something along the line of, "We don't like to do hicks unless a tornado hits their trailer park"), but even then, I'd be watching too much for a single thing, and if you're watching for a single thing, then you tend to find it.
ladyvorkosigan From: ladyvorkosigan Date: October 22nd, 2005 04:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's a tough issue. I agree that reporters should have protection against revealing their anonymous sources, and also that there are times when stories have to be done with anonymous sources. We need that check on authorities and such.

But yes, at the same time, there are issues of trust and context. Some of the policies certain papers have put into effect seem to be good compromises as far as they go - requiring more than one source, if the source is anonymous, wherever possible, revealing as much information about the source as possible (their general job description at the least), making sure an editor knows who the source is and can at least check the reporter (since there have been enough cases where reporters were just making things up unilaterally). Not all papers have those policies, I don't think, and they're not perfect, but to me it represents a pretty good compromise.

Btw, this is Gilraen from SugarQuill. . .I hope you don't mind me friending you. I've been lurknig for a while now and realized I had neveri dentified myself.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 22nd, 2005 05:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Friends are always good. :)

I'd like the policies to be more transparent, at least, maybe the names of the people who have verified the source.
ziasudra_fic From: ziasudra_fic Date: October 22nd, 2005 04:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
If things are conducted properly at all levels, the editor of the reporter should have confirmation that the interviewed source is real. Editors have the right to demand proof from their reporters that their sources are credible, and they also have the right to withhold the information from the public to protect the reporter and the source.

Take the Deep Throat case, for example. The only people who knew who Deep Throat was were the reporters and their editor, and Deep Throat himself. To me, the editor did the right thing by 1) verifying the source's identity, and 2) keeping the source anonymous at Deep Throat's request.

Of course, it doesn't make it any easier on the reader's part when s/he comes across something from an anonymous source. But if the publication is from a company/agency/publisher that has a reputation for strong reporter and editor integrity, then I usually take it as an indication that the editors have done their job. Very subjective, I know, since recent cases have proven otherwise :\
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 22nd, 2005 05:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, that's the problem--when The New Republic has a Stephen Glass and the New York Times has a Jayson Blair, how can the reader trust the editors to be vetting? There's too much news out there for everything to go across anyone's desk. It's very hard to cross-examine an article's premises without knowing where the information came from.
From: magnolia_mama Date: October 22nd, 2005 06:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
You can probably add Judith Miller to that list too, since her editor is saying she seems to have fudged a few things in her report to him about the CIA leak robe.

Ultimately, I think it's a matter of trust tempered by common sense and prudence. My dad is assistant regional editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, which means he's responsible for all Kentucky-based news outside of metro Louisville. His paper, which is owned by Gannett, requires all information to be not only double-checked, but triple-checked, before an article will go to print. He told me not long ago about a story he had to torpedo after 6 weeks' worth of research because he couldn't get the verification he needed.

Now... do I believe this is true because my father (a source I think I can trust) said so? Do you believe me because I said so, and provided a source (if not a wholly independent one) for my information? Or are you going to e-mail the managing editor or, at least, Dad's boss, to verify what we both have claimed?

There comes a point with any story of this nature where you have to decide what information you can accept as fact, but with the unconscious proviso that it may be proven false in the future, and I think that's where you draw the line between trust and skepticism.
mincot From: mincot Date: October 23rd, 2005 03:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes--I am more likely to trust a report from a reporter with a proven history of accuracy and fair dealing, who works for a newspaper / magazine with careful standards, than I am from a reporter whose work I don't know or whose editor I neither trust or know.
tunxeh From: tunxeh Date: October 22nd, 2005 05:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think you should treat anonymously sourced quotes exactly as if they were made up from whole cloth by the writer: good for provoking thought and guiding further investigations, but not useful as support for anything.
angua9 From: angua9 Date: October 22nd, 2005 08:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
When you are given information from an unnamed source, the only means you can use for evaluating it is the reputation and credibility of the reporter who is reporting it. He or she is asserting that the source is reliable and trustworthy (or, anyway, the reporter will usually give some cues about how much the source can be relied upon in the story).

If I trust the reporter's judgment and veracity (and his/her editor's), I will tend to accept their representation of the source. If I don't, I won't so much.
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: October 22nd, 2005 09:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think this is just one of those things, Fern, that we have to live with. Uncertainty is a fact of life. There is a reason why one of the most appealing aspect of any religion's heaven has always been clarity: we innately yearn for complete information on which to base our decisions.

For what it's worth, I think it's bad journalism to quote a source's *opinion* on a certain issue without revealing the affiliations of the source. For example, if I'm doing an article deploring the great evilness of MS Corp, and I quote an unnamed source who has inside info, who says that employees of MS also hate MS etc., I want to know generic info such as: was this person recenty fired by the company? Is she perhaps an activist in the Open Source movement who happens to have friends working for MS? Information like this doesn't compromise the identity of the sources, and it allows readers to draw more accurate conclusions. It's not always possible to do this, of course, and often, it may not be an appealing thing to do (especially if the affiliation of the source affects the article's strength negatively), but it's a question of journalistic integrity, and where it can be done it should be done.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 22nd, 2005 09:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it's just that it's difficult to read critically without the pertinent information. If I'm analyzing statistics, I want to know the scope of the study, how they were gathered, and so on (the traditional "scare graph" which turns out to be nothing much more than a random fluctuation). When it's stats, you can go in and say, "Okay, this is the study they came from, and the study is apparently valid/invalid..." But a random unnamed source... how do you cross-examine the information?
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: October 22nd, 2005 11:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Setting aside the ironic (a journalist talking about spin choosing to remain anonymous? My 11 year old daughter could see the irony in that) I have to wonder why a journalist can't talk about spin on the record. If the source is in politics, then the source simultaneously gains and loses credibility, which may be why the source elected anonymity.

But a book? Not a newspaper report? Why would you need a anonymous source in a book? Why would an author want one?

Very odd.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 23rd, 2005 03:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
The distinct impression--it was a news producer whose quote I'm thinking of; that much was identified--was that s/he didn't want to get in trouble with his/her superiors for saying things that everyone on the inside knew, but which might be shocking to a general audience. This could get the person informally blackballed, or so the very strong suggestion is.
merlinssister12 From: merlinssister12 Date: October 23rd, 2005 01:45 am (UTC) (Link)
I agree that a journalist should protect the sources he/she uses in investigating a story, however if the quote is being used to support his/her arguement it has to be verifiable otherwise it is exactly the same as a scientist faking data to support a hypothesis.
ashavah From: ashavah Date: October 23rd, 2005 01:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
We've had an interesting court case here recently with journalists being charged for being in contempt of court for refusing to name a source who leaked government documents to them. It's a really interesting issue, isn't it?
hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: October 24th, 2005 04:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oi, this is a thorny one. A few people further up put it well—a reputable news source has certain safeguards in place both to minimize the use of unnamed sources and to verify that there is a legitimate reason to use them/proof that they're legit. The issue re. editors not being able to keep track of every single thing is valid, but in my opinion, if a story is important enough that unnamed sources are needed, it's important enough that a good editor is keeping VERY close tabs on it.

BTW, I'm a reporter at a national business magazine, and after the Matt Co0per portion of the whole Valerie Plame fiasco, Co0per came to chat with us about his feeling re having his notes turned over against his will, the long term effect of this case on political coverage, etc. In politics there are obviously very tricky reasons for this confusion. On the one hand, there is a need for transparency that is served by government employees tipping off journalists that a certain area bears investigating, and most gov't employees sign strict confidentiality agreements—they’d lose their jobs for speaking to a journalist at all. On the other hand, modern politics RELIES on being able to slip a little nugget of damaging info to a journalist in order to support your side's spin. It's a very nasty situation, and DC journalists have a difficult tightrope to walk. It doesn't help that most of them become part of the Inside The Beltway mentality, and are socializing at night with the people they write about during the day...

In the world of business journalism we have a similar problem. How much of a chance does some mid-level manager have of keeping his job after telling a magazine about how horribly inefficient the management is? We have to use unnamed sources sometimes, but our rules are strict. You use them to kick off—to point you in the right direction, to find out that something bears looking into. But from there you have to find significant proof to back it up, and you have to prove to your editor that there is a valid reason for using the quote. That said, I'd guess that 90% of our long features include at least one anonymous (though well-explained in terms of "a manager in the blah blah division") quote.

I suppose I have a warped perspective, because within the journalism community there is a pretty wide understanding of who is behind certain quotes (in the political arena, at least), and how thorough certain reporters are. I wonder how I would know who to trust if I didn't have the behind-the-scenes viewpoint. The talk among us for the past year+ about J. Miller has been that this whole thing was being used to refurbish her image after she was such an obvious pawn during the lead-up to war. Pretty cynical, especially since a colleague at our company got wrapped up into it, but here, at least, there was never much belief that Miller was a trustworthy journalist.

whoa, that was REALLY long...I'm sorry!
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