By Casey Bukro
Pssst! Hey buddy, over here. Got some really important news for you. Can’t tell you where I got it. But trust me.
That, in effect, is the con played often on the public by some of the nation’s leading newspapers, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s called anonymity.
This con was neatly spelled out in a Reuters piece by Jack Shafer, who counted the number of times the Times offered corrections recently on stories based on anonymous sources, citing anonymous sources again to make the corrections.
That’s carrying the con a bit far.
Shafer traces the history of citing anonymous sources from a time when it was rare, to a time when it was rampant. It’s probably fair to say that this journalistic disease is especially prevalent in Washington, involving government and political reporting.
Most reporters know that stories are only as good as the reliability of identified sources who are quoted.
“Anonymous sources reduce the pressure on official sources to take responsibility for their utterances,” writes Shafer. “And it promotes the gaming of news outlets, with anonymous sources gravitating to the most pliant reporters and editors.”
Weak or lazy scribes sometimes think they’re acting like “the big boys” by writing stories veiled in mystery, as though they know really important people who want to stay in the shadows. Sometimes these journalists know they are being used, but think that’s how the game is played. With more digging, they might find sources willing to be identified.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “the public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” There are times when anonymity is warranted, such as protecting someone’s life or welfare.
Scholars believe the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage was the “watershed moment for anonymous reporting,” touching off a wave of imitators who lusted for the fame of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Getting cozy with news sources is another way to play the game, as Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s “On the Media” program pointed out in his scathing commentary on the White House Correspondents Dinner in a piece entitled “When the Watchdogs Wear Tuxedos, Politicians Rest Easy.”
All of this leads to a point made by Thomas Baekdal, who investigated the meaning of quality journalism. He found that although some of the leading newspaper managers say they are doing a great job, they are losing readers.
It’s just possible that readers are disenchanted with journalism that depends on anonymous sources and making nice with news sources, like the White House correspondents dinner. It’s journalism with a wink and a nod.
Readers know what’s going on there, and they’re turned off. They know they’re entitled to a better journalism, and better journalists.