May 26, 2004

The Lesson from the Times

UPDATE: Howell Raines takes offense at the notion that Times editors under his watch "felt pressured to get scoops into the paper before the necessary checking had taken place" and argues (correctly, I add) that it is "unfair to single out Judy Miller, even in a blind reference, or to cite individual stories by other reporters without drawing aside the veil of anonymity around un-bylined editors who worked with them." He then names the editors.

Read it all on Romenesko.

EARLIER: The unsigned editors' note in the New York Times today about the flaws in its pre-war coverage contains one elemental lesson for journalists -- especially for newspapers concerned about credibility -- the quality of reporting cannot be separated from the nature of the sources.

Jack Shafer from Slate, who led the charge that the Times' reporting -- and that of Pulitzer-winner Judith Miller in particular -- on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction favored the view of the Bush administration and Iraqi dissidents who were using assertion of WMD's as pretext for war. In his column yesterday, Shafer focuses on the sourcing lesson:

The lesson of Wen Ho Lee, obviously not digested by the newspaper, is that a reporter should never get too close to a biased source. The danger is compounded when the reporter then talks to a second biased source whose source, unbeknownst to the reporter, comes from the ranks of the first biased source. What looks like corroboration is just confusion—or worse, a scam. From the poison tree comes poison fruit. (Emphasis added)

Anonymous sources are the bane of good journalism. They do nothing to help reverse the decline of journalistic credibility and provide opportunity after opportunity for those sources who see journalism as a self-serving tool to wield that too to suit their own purposes.

As Geneva Overholser has pointed out on many occasions, policies attempting to limit the use of anonymous sources -- or at least force reporters and editors to explain to readers why their using them -- have had mixed results.

Anonymous sources are necessary. Some are whistleblowers who ring the alarm of wrongdoing, others point the way through the bureaucratic labyrinths of government to documents that are better made public than kept hidden. Using unamed sources to identify fact and provide documentation -- in other words, a verifiable result -- is not only acceptable but laudable.

However, relying on anonymity as a source of assertion, especially if the only verification is that of a second or third unnamed source, damages the profession and undermines its core values.

Journalism's first obligation is to the truth. So wrote Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach in "The Elements of Journalism." The truth flourishes in the light and withers in the dark. If the only way to tell a story is to hide the identity of its source, then perhaps it is better left in the dark.

Posted by Tim Porter at May 26, 2004 07:44 AM