Tag Archives: PoliticoMedia

May the Source Be With You, But Not Anonymously

Reporter's notebook taped shut.
Sources looking to go off the record often have little to contribute. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By Casey Bukro

After being seriously burned by false information from anonymous sources, the New York Times decided to be more cautious about accepting information from people who don’t want to be identified.

The Times issued new guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources, mandating that stories resorting to anonymity must be submitted to one of the paper’s top three editors for advance approval.

That’s a step in the right direction for a publication that long prided itself on knowing inside information, even if cloaked in anonymity.

A copy of the memo to the Times newsroom was forwarded to Politico anonymously. Hard to decide if that is ironic or hilarious.

The memo shows, among other things, that old habits at the publication known as “the Gray Lady” are hard to break. It begins by defending the use of anonymous sources as “sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.”

The memo observed that readers “routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.”

Readers can see the practice as the Times “vouching for the information unequivocally – or worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.”

It appears that the Times is finally catching up on a rule generally accepted by many professional journalists: Information is only as good as its source. Credible and identifiable sources provide reliable information, or information that can be judged for reliability.

Departing from this rule can have serious consequences, as the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out. In several opinion page articles, she described how reliance on anonymous sources led to “two major front-page errors in a six-month period.”

One alleged a Justice Department criminal investigation against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which Sullivan called “fraught with inaccuracies.” The other involved jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. The mass shooting killed 14 people and injured 22.

Too many Times articles rely on anonymous government sources, Sullivan wrote in December, 2015. She called for “systemic change” at The Times. “The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote.

Continue reading May the Source Be With You, But Not Anonymously

Ombudsman: ‘Loneliest Job in the Newsroom’

Kathy English
Kathy English, Toronto Star public editor (Toronto Star photo by Lucas Oleniuk)

By Casey Bukro

I’m a sucker for stories about news ombudsmen, or public editors or readers representatives, even though they are branded these days. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion, an addiction.

Think about it: An ombudsman might walk up to the top boss and tell him he’s wrong. She might pick through the details of a complicated story, then defend a reporter for doing a thankless, difficult or even dangerous job, or discover that a reporter did not go far enough to find the truth, and then say so publicly.

It’s almost heroic.

I suppose I also admire ombudsmen because what they do is so idealistic: speaking up without fear or favor, letting the chips fall where they may.

Maybe that’s why there are only about 20 of them working at American news outlets today, according to a Politico article, “The State of the Ombudsman in 2015.” That’s about half as many as a decade ago, according to USA Today.

Still, ombudsmen in the U.S. and elsewhere trudge on.

Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star in Canada, recently wrote an article titled, “So what does the public editor do?” Readers had asked her to explain her job, which she’s done for eight years.

Continue reading Ombudsman: ‘Loneliest Job in the Newsroom’