Is the race to publish quick news causing journalists to sacrifice the truth?
Leading newspaper editors and media experts alike are united in their distrust of anonymous sources cited in premier news outlets. So why do the unnamed sources continue to appear in so many of today’s top papers?
In 2013, Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of The New York Times, took issue with the journalistic quality of an article on American counterintelligence the newspaper published on September 29 of that year. The story ran an unattributed headline and cited anonymous sources “described,” as Ms. Sullivan put it, “in the vaguest possible way”— e.g. “one United States intelligence official.” Responding to Ms. Sullivan’s criticism of the piece, The Times’ Patrick LaForge, who oversaw the copy-editing desk, apologized for the article’s unacceptable headline and unattributed sources, stating: “Sometimes our editing safeguards fail us under the press of a deadline, as they did here. It is good to be reminded that our readers expect better.” Oftentimes, journalists reporting on high-risk security and government situations necessarily include anonymous sources to report on events. Deep Throat is perhaps the most famous example of correct journalistic usage of a secret informant. The pseudonym was used to protect a source cited by Woodward and Bernstein in The Washington Post to cover Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, which led to the President’s resignation. Thirty years after the event, the source was revealed to be FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt.
But as the aforementioned Mr. LaForge conceded, readers expect better from newspapers choosing to rely on blind sources. At minimum, they expect accurate reporting.
In a survey conducted by The Associated Press and Associated Press Managing Editors in 2005, 1 in 5 newspaper readers said they did not think media outlets should report information given by sources who were unwilling to be identified. And 44 percent of readers surveyed said anonymity in sources made them less likely to believe what they read. The survey itself, which centered on media credibility, was prompted after Newsweek retracted its infamous May 9, 2005 story that set off riots in Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world. That particular article alleged that U.S. interrogators had flushed a copy of the Quran while questioning prisoners at Guantanamo Bay—a claim provided by an “unnamed source at the Pentagon.” Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman called the Newsweek report “irresponsible” and “demonstrably false,” adding that the magazine “hid behind anonymous sources which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny.”
Reliance on unnamed sources can be profoundly damaging to the media’s credibility and the subjects of coverage when used in day-to-day reporting, media experts say. “Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports,” NPR’s guidelines state. “It is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny.”
Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists approved a new Code of Ethics in 2014, stating on the subject that journalists must do the following: “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources. Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm. Do not grant anonymity merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.”
Unfortunately, in today’s race to break headlines and be the first paper reporting, journalists often succumb to unnamed source usage and surrender their obligation to be correct in their desire to be first. “Even if it is accurate, readers cannot judge the value of the material for themselves if they don’t know the source,” said John Christie, editor in chief of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. “Many sources hide behind anonymity to take cheap shots without anyone knowing they have an axe to grind or a dog in the fight.”
Nor is the use of anonymous sources confined to subjects of the import of Watergate and the= U.S. war in Afghanistan. In 2009, New York Times reporter Lynnley Browning wrote an article on the suicide of Finn M.W. Caspersen, a retired business executive and public figure in philanthropic and financial circles, published just eight days after his date of death. Browning cited a solitary anonymous source, a person allegedly “close to the investigation,” to report that the I.R.S. was investigating the retired executive for an alleged undeclared offshore bank account and that Mr. Caspersen “might have owed $100 million in back taxes and fines or, possibly, even have faced prison.” Browning further relied on the same anonymous source to report that the I.R.S. had placed liens on trusts for his four sons. The IRS, per policy, provided no corroboration of the information contained in the article. In fact, subsequent calls made to the IRS for commentary on the matter were met with the Service’s standard response regarding journalistic inquires: “The IRS and its employees are not able to comment on pending litigation or specific investigations.”
But, eventually, an attorney for Mr. Caspersen’s estate did comment and effectively stated that the Times’ anonymous source was entirely wrong. Denis Conlon, who had a lengthy career at the I.R.S. before moving to the private sector, has stated that the I.R.S. audited Mr. Caspersen’s 2005 through 2008 returns, and exonerated him in 2013. Specifically, according to Mr. Conlon’s detailed statement, Mr. Caspersen received a refund of approximately $7,000 for over-payment of his 2006 return and was determined to owe approximately $14,000 in interest, due to an amended return for 2008, which showed over $2.7 million of income.
Mr. Caspersen’s returns for the other two years, 2005 and 2007, were found to be in order; no refunds were granted or additional tax levied. Mr. Conlon further stated that no FBAR or other fines of any sort were imposed and that the I.R.S. did not place liens on any Caspersen family trusts, entities, or individuals.
So much for Browning’s statement that Mr. Caspersen faced up to $100 million in back taxes and fines. Browning seemingly lacked confidence in her solitary anonymous source, as she repeatedly qualified her narrative of the retired executive as a tax cheat with terms such as “might have,” “it seemed,” and “apparently.” This may have been her editors’ handiwork in protecting the paper from publishing what were later proven to be false statements. Regardless, erroneous reporting on the lives and fates of the deceased is especially insidious, as the deceased are unable to defend themselves.
While there is a strong public policy rationale for not reporting the names of alleged victims of rape, journalists must not rely blindly on an anonymous source who states that he or she is the victim of sexual assault, as the recent Rolling Stone UVA debacle so brutally illustrates. To the contrary, journalists must conduct rigorous fact checking to corroborate an anonymous source at the center of an article reporting an alleged sexual assault. In 2014 journalist Sabrina Erdely of Rolling Stone reported that a University of Virginia undergraduate was subjected to a gang rape at a fraternity party. The article hinged on a story provided by one student identified in the piece as “Jackie.”
While initially met with national acclaim, the Rolling Stone narrative quickly fell apart, as the fraternity defended itself and other journalists undertook the fact-checking and investigative work that Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone failed to do. As example, while the Rolling Stone article reported that Jackie’s date (a member of the fraternity in question) worked at UVA’s pool, basic fact checking proved that no member of that fraternity worked at the UVA pool in the relevant time period. Furthermore, the fraternity provided evidence that it did not in fact host a party on the night in question – in direct contravention to Rolling Stone’s central narrative that she had been a date at the fraternity’s party that evening, before her date allegedly lured her to a gang rape in a private room in the fraternity house. Ultimately, the Charlottesville police determined Jackie’s allegations as reported in Rolling Stone had “no substantive basis.”
Following public outrage as to the apparent lack of veracity of the news piece, Rolling Stone commissioned the renowned Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to analyze the article it published and review its journalistic and editorial protocols. The April report delivered by Columbia cited failures “at every stage of the reporting process,” and Rolling Stone thereafter retracted the piece.
But that’s not all. Several litigants have since stepped forward to file defamation lawsuits against Rolling Stone. And in the most recent fallout, on July 29, 2015, the magazine’s 19-year veteran managing editor, Will Dana, announced his departure. While neither Mr. Dana nor publisher Jann S. Wenner went on record attributing his resignation to the disastrous UVA story, the timing alone signals the fall-out and the end of Mr. Dana’s formerly bright career at the helm of one of the nation’s most respected magazines for investigative journalism.
“Will Dana’s failures have cost everyone involved,” headlined an opinion piece in The Washington Post published in December 2014, which called for his resignation. The piece went on to state that “Everyone involved in that story—the fraternity, the campus, the unnamed (but since identified) alleged perpetrators and especially the victim—deserves a calm, dispassionate, evenhanded presentation of the facts of the evening in question, presented from all points of view. Do not rush this. Good investigative work rests on facts, and facts can be stubbornly hard to acquire.”