June 16, 2004

According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability

Is having no source in a news story better than citing an anonymous one?

Daniel Okrent, the New York Times Public Editor, raised that question in his column over the weekend looking at the effect of the Times new anonymous sourcing policy, which mandates that "the use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy."

After reporting that the dictum has failed to meet, in its own words, the "obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation," Okrent wrote:

"It's worth reconsidering the entire nature of reportorial authority and responsibility. In other words, why quote anonymous sources at all? Do their words take on more credibility because they're flanked with quotation marks? If Waxman and Holson (Note: Okrent was referring to this story) written their article in their own voice, eschewing all blind quotes and meaningless attributions and making only the assertions they were confident were true, we could hold someone responsible for the accuracy: not the dubious sources, but the writers themselves. Isn't that the way it ought to be? (Insert, emphasis added.)

Hard on Okrent's heels, even yelping at his shanks, comes Jack Shafer, who observes (correctly) that journalists, especially those covering government, "have become so comfortable with anonymous sourcing that they're often the first ones to propose it and then points out in his Slate column today that:

The Wall Street Journal "hasn't eradicated anonymous sources, but it keeps their population under control by giving reporters latitude to assert the truth on their own authority."

At issue here is accountability - the obligation, to borrow the Times' word, of a journalist to be responsible for the information and assertions he puts before the public. Anonymous sources - or anonymice, to borrow a coinage from Shafer, who borrowed it from elsewhere - by nature lack accountability, making the stories based on their words and the journalists who resort to them equally bereft of responsibility.

After the post-Jayson Blair, post-Jack Kelley, post-Judith Miller public floggings and self-flagellations, the problem is not a dearth of awareness within the news industry about the credibility - and accuracy - pitfalls associated with anonymity. Sourcing policies abound. Enforcement does not. Both reporters and their editors are willing to march onward into an anonymously-sourced future because it's how the game is played, especially in official corridors, and so far there is little reward for changing the rules.

Here's Shafer again:

"Anonymous sources appeal to those reporters and readers who believe-perversely-that anonymity conveys truthfulness. In their minds, the further a source distances himself from the information, the more honest he'll be. This attitude dovetails perfectly with the widely held viewpoint-correct, I might add-that most official, on-the-record comments are bull." (Emphasis added.)

Dead on. So is Okrent's question the foundation for an answer? Would journalism be better served if reporters, when unable to verify information on the record, simply stated what they know to be true? Certainly, it's a radical jump over the river of truth from the bank of objectivity ( sources said) to the bank of assertion (the fact is ) on the other side.

The Elements of Journalism states that the essence of journalism "is a discipline of verification." The purpose of putting sources in news stories is to make the verification process transparent, to show the reader the basis for all facts, assertions and opinions in the story. Anonymous sources, however, occlude not clarify.

Is it time to flip the accountability lever back from the sources and more toward the newspaper and to the individual reporters? If a reporter writes a story without anonymous sources, but instead fills with declarations in his own voice the places where "sources said" would appear, it is the reporter who will be proven correct or incorrect as history trudges onward and on-the-record sources eventually emerge from hiding, as they always do. Readers, then, will be able to judge the credibility of a newspaper or its individual reporters by what they know, not by who they can quote on background.

I'm warming to Okrent's idea.

UPDATE: Andrew Cline offers this view of the reporter-source relationship:

In the current journalistic epistemology, the reporter is not the knower; the source is the knower. This is clearly mistaken in this sense: If the source tells the reporter and the reporter understands, then the reporter can be said to know, too. So verification really is a hierarchy of knowing, in which the reporter bows to the source and sells the source to the audience as the greater among knowers. (Emphasis added)

Here is my response to Andrew's thoughts:

Much of this goes to the issue of "authority." Is the newspaper the authority? Is it a vehicle upon which the citizens can rely for authoritative, i.e., accurate, sound, truthful, information?

Reporters strive, as their careers advance, to write with more authority, meaning to report and write stories that convey solidity, depth and knowledge in contrast to the "according to" convention taught in basic reporting classes. Yet, even though good reporters become more knowledgeable in their fields, the forms of journalism discourage overt expression of that knowledge.

The slippery slope -- and there always is on -- is that encouraging reporters to state rather than attribute opens the door (every slippery slope has a door leading to it) for mediocre journalists, those who either think they know but don't or want to mimic the better reporters, to also state rather than attribute. In their cases, though, often they will get it wrong. In an ideal world of self-correcting journalism, the public would turn away and not read those reporters known to be inaccurate or insubstantial. As we know, though, that's not the case.

I do think the issue returns eventually to the the idea of responsibility, of ownership of and accountability for what is printed -- at least those things written by the newspaper's own staff. Shafer is right that quoting official press releases and other self-serving statements by public officials and others is a waste of time. Their only value lies in the ability of the newspaper to put them in context, to measure them against some yardstick of truth -- which, again, doesn't happen frequently.

I like your point -- which I tried to express in another way -- that the process of verification does not necessarily need to take place publicly, but I also think that newspapers need to become more transparent to the public. In that sense, any movement away from public verification needs to be accompanied by an equal embrace of openness: Explain why there is no source for something; point readers toward public information that supports conclusions; offer public education as well reporting. In other words, a redefinition of "verified information" needs to partner with a redefinition of how newspapers do journalism and their self-perception of their relationship with the public.

 Daniel Okrent An Electrician From the Ukrainian Town of Lutsk
 Jack Shafer Ratting Out the Anonymice

Posted by Tim Porter at June 16, 2004 07:56 AM