November 04, 2003

Identifying Leaks, Plugging Credibility Gap

Christopher Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, suggests newspapers include icons with stories based on anonymous sources so readers can understand the motivations of those leaking the information, most of which are "personal or political gain."

"Every such story," says Hanson in a piece in the Baltimore Sun, "would come with a graphic icon of a leaking water tap" and key symbol that identified the leaker's "self-serving motives." Hanson suggests:

 Knife -- Warning: The purpose of this leak is to hurt or destroy the source's political enemy. (Mr. Novak's CIA agent disclosure needed such an icon.)

 Pointing finger -- Warning: The source is attempting to shift blame to someone else. (This icon would have been suitable for the rush-to-war leaks cited above.)

 Blowfish -- Warning: The anonymous source is puffing up himself or his boss. Be skeptical. (This icon should be used for virtually every anecdote leaked from the White House about a president at work.)

 Balloon -- Warning: trial balloon. If the proposed change in policy described in this story draws boos, it will be disowned by the administration as a figment of the reporter's imagination.

Andrew Cline, who pointed to Hanson, comments correctly that "reporters do understand the intentions listed above. Protests to the contrary are merely absurd."

Anonymous sources are the bane of credible journalism. The inability to verify the identify, and therefore the political affiliation, background and contextual information, of a source adds to public distrust of journalism and fuels the self-serving criticism leveled against the news media by both progressives and conservatives, each of whom use the anonymity of the news for their own purposes.

As Jack Shafer wrote recently in Slate: "I trust all leakers and anonymous sources - I trust them to give a selective account that will benefit them, one that pleases their patrons and screws their enemies."

Of course, anonymity has a role in journalism, but a limited one. Peter Bhatia, executive editor of the Oregonian and president of ASNE, remarked during a Poynter Institute discussion on attribution:

"The anonymous source is a tool like any tool. But it tends to be overused. we don't use anonymous sources unless there's no other way to get the story in the paper and the story is of such compelling public interest that we must get it in the paper. If the mayor was embezzling and we had multiple (anonymous) sources, we would do it."

This is not a new issue. Accuracy and credibility are two key reasons behind public mistrust, and therefore increasing non-use, of newspapers. Christine Urban, a newspaper consultant who studies credibility issues, told an ASNE meeting in 1999: "Seventy-some percent of the people are concerned with the credibility of the story when they see us do a 'sources says.'"

She added:

"Now, please, the public is not as smart as you. They don't have 10 Ph.D.s and 52 masters, or whatever we declared was the educational profile here, but they do have a lot of common sense. And common sense says that you have to be skeptical about anything, so there is a healthy degree of looking at this and saying, well, if the only source they have is unidentified, maybe the story isn't true. We asked them what should newspapers do if it was impossible to get anybody to go on the record. The options we offered them were run the story with the quotes, not run the story at all, and then, of course, some people were unconcerned with the issue. Forty-five percent of the public says don't run the story at all if all you have is an unidentified source, the anonymous source. One of the guys in the focus group asked, "When a newspaper uses anonymous sources does that mean they don't know who it is?" I wonder how close he is to the truth."

One thing is true: A journalist's duty is to inform and he's not upholding that duty, not truly informing, when he's not telling the reader who is feeding him the news.

Links
 Christopher Hanson News media consumers could use a lesson on leaks
 Poynter Institute Attribution: Discussion & Debate

Posted by Tim Porter at November 4, 2003 08:33 AM