Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Sources say that's really crappy journalism

As I’ve mentioned before I’m a journalist in my day job (which I’m enjoying a nice vacation from at the moment) and I tell you, if I regularly submitted stories filled with gossip and backbiting sourced only to anonymous “senior Liberals” or “senior Conservatives” my vacation would be much longer than I’d like.

That’s not to say anonymous sources don’t have their place in journalism. They absolutely do. The best example of an anonymous source is the infamous “Deep Throat” that provided inside information to the Washington Post to break the Watergate Scandal and topple Nixon.

But, as journalists, we need to be judicious in our use of anonymous sources. The first question we need to ask is if the information they’re providing is of value, and why they’re requesting anonymity. Are they blowing the whistle on unethical or illegal behaviour that the public has the right to know about, and could their career or even their lives be jeopardized by their releasing it? That’s a good case for anonymity. Certainly no one’s lives are in danger with political gossip mongering.

Now, anonymous sourcing has always been more commonplace in political journalism. Often, it’s government sources giving advanced views of upcoming policy announcements. This would be an authorized leak, which of course is wildly different from unauthorized leaks. I’m not sure how, it just is.

Then there’s the gossipy anonymous sources, usually involving the internal party machinations that the media, but not the public, are so enamored with. Applying the usual test here and it usually doesn’t pass, there’s no compelling public need to know and no one’s lives are in danger by going public. Careers, quite possibly yes.

But here, it’s important for the journalist to question the motivation of the source requesting the anonymity. Why do they wish to remain anonymous? Is their desire to remain anonymous outweighed by the public’s right to judge the veracity of the information with all the facts (including the identity of the source)? Do they really need to remain anonymous, or are they just hiding behind anonymity to make accusations they’d never make under their own names?

I think that, more often than not, it’s the latter. There’s no compelling need to grant anonymity to back-biting gossip mongers, giving them a national platform to spew unproven accusations without giving the public any information to judge their biases, motivations or accuracy. That’s just bad journalism, and it's lazy journalism.

At the very least journalists could offer more information to their readers to make a judgment. Rather than just saying “senior Liberal” say “a BLAH organizer” or a “senior BLAH loyalist” so we at least have some context to put the accusations in, and can judge their motivations a little more easily.

Instead, we rely on journalists to make that judgment for us and sorry, but I just don’t trust them. They have their own biases and motivations, and the way to overcome those biases is with fully sourced, responsible journalism that presents all the facts and lets the readers decide.

Anything else should stay in Frank Magazine where it belongs.

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Suzanne said...


Red Tory said...

This anonymous “source” business is getting to be a bit much, especially seeing as there appears to be so little substance to many of the articles in which this device is employed. Really, it’s almost becoming something of a running joke. Often, the whole article is structured around the gossipy rumour-mongering of the vaguely attributed source in question. It’s unfortunate that the press seem quite content to be manipulated in this way. Laziness, most certainly; or quite possibly something even more pernicious.