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May 23, 2005

What is the Role of the Anonymous Source?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

After a number of embarrassing incidents over the past couple of years, mainstream media outlets are examining their use of anonymous sources, reports Lorne Manly for the NYTimes. At the same time, small and independent journalists are pointing out that the pendulum may have swung too far, given the atmosphere of mistrust and ongoing litigation directed at revealing anonymous sources.

If any good comes out of this, I believe it will be in the form of requirements that sources be contextualized, giving the readers more ability to understand the viewpoint and agenda of the speaker. Identifying someone as "a Northeastern Democratic Congressman" may be more informative than just "a Congressman." Likewise, "a defense policy analyst for a conservative think-tank" would tell us more than just the generic "defense policy analyst." Manly reports that NBC News is trying to move in this direction which could, if done well, help the public.

Other organizations are trying to force reporters to identify sources to management at their workplaces, such as a managing editor. This sounds fine in theory - and may serve as as brake on future journalistic malfeasance - but it raises the trust specter and will no doubt complicate the legal situation for media that wish to protect anonymous sources in court.

Rule changes are sometimes adopted hastily in the wake of scandals. Howard Kurtz reports that such a change is ongoing at Newsweek in the wake of the "flushed Quran" story. The magazine is restricting use of anonymous sources and requiring reporters to show why anonymity is necessary. Editors will have to approve anonymous sources. The ironic part about this is that the story that caused the ruckus was well-known prior to Newsweek's posting and in fact the Red Cross has broken its customary silence in order to point out that it gave the Pentagon multiple reports from detainees at Guantanamo detailing the behavior that Newsweek reported and then shamefully retracted.

Anonymous source or not, the story was correct. That is the role of the anonymous source - to bring forth information that cannot or is not being revealed by conventional channels. By deflecting attention onto this secondary phenomenon, detractors such as White House press secretary Scott McClellan are artfully avoiding having to discuss the facts of the matter.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Speech


1. Scote on May 23, 2005 12:05 PM writes...

The Newsweek story also gave the Whitehouse a chance to blame the real villain in all of the violence in the Middle East: Newsweek.

As McClellan was indignantly condemning Newsweek for relying on a single anonymous source, the Whitehouse was still refusing to stop its practice of giving official background briefings to the press with the condition that the single person giving them remain anonymous. So, anonymous sources the Whitehouse disagrees with are bad but the Bush Administration's single anonymous sources are good.

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2. TomCS on May 23, 2005 8:06 PM writes...

Hard cases make bad law.

The media will, if it goes beyond recycling PR handouts and press conferences, always have to make close calls, based on moral certainty, but short of two independent sources which could resist cross examination under oath.

The Newsweek Koran case is a classic. It would have been published months ago if a single source could have been found to be quoted in an "I was there, I saw it" context. I doubt if a single Kabul based journalist was surprised (upset because he didn't find the smoking gun, yes, but not surprised). Not many Pentagon based journos either.

To me the culprits are the editors. Once the story was printed, they needed to defend both their writer and their source. Both were almost certainly right, well above the civil court requirement of balance of probability, and if the story was inadequately glossed, then the editor was at fault and should resign. Print and get sued used to be the motto of the MSM. The US press is running a serious risk of accepting censorship through bullying, whether from the White House or the rampant bloggers, and it is the editors who are at fault, not the writers.

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3. Neo on May 29, 2005 4:20 AM writes...

Hrm. I thought TomCS wasn't on our side of the copyfight? This posting however seems to defend journalistic freedom and source anonymity, just like us, and seems to come from TomCS...

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