Anonymous sources: leaving journalism’s false god behind

Editor’s Note: John Christie, editor in chief of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, delivered the following Donald M. Murray Lecture at the University of New Hampshire on April 1.

Last fall, I attended a panel discussion at Colby College in Maine called, “From JFK to the Marathon Bombing: 50 years of crisis reporting.”

A panelist told a story that illustrated one face of the false god journalism is worshipping with an ever-increasing devoutness.

Adam Goldman is a co-author of the AP’s Pulitzer Prize series about the New York City Police Department’s counterterrorism program.

While at the AP – he’s at The Washington Post now – he was assigned last September to cover the mass shooting at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.

This was less than a year after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

The dangers of getting things wrong should still have been fresh on the minds of journalists after the multiple rush-to-judgment errors made in the coverage of Newtown, including identifying the actual shooter’s brother as the shooter.

Here’s what Adam Goldman said at that Colby conference:

“I’ll give you one other example of this pressure for us to break news and I ended up having to do a corrective on this. It wasn’t a major deal, but during the Naval Yard shooting … we’re obsessed with guns as reporters, right – ‘Well, what kind of guns were used in Newtown, what kind of gun was used in the Naval Yard,’ our editors want to know that. It’s a fleeting scoop that lasts for like 20 seconds; nobody really cares what kind of gun they used. A source had told me, ‘Yeah, it was an AR 15 that was used in the Naval Yard shooting,’ so I told my editor … And then another reporter independently says, ‘Yeah, it was an AR 15,’ so now we have two independent sources saying it was an AR 15, good sources. (He later said these were anonymous sources.) Turned out there wasn’t an AR 15 involved in the Naval Yard shooting. So where did we fall down? It was an initial report from the scene, somebody passing through, law enforcement responded that they saw an AR 15 by the dead gunman and they put that in a report and the report generated its way up the chain and people saw that, and they conveyed that to us. But while we treated that as almost fact and put it on the wire, law enforcement never intended that to be fact.”

So here were Adam’s editors, just months after a pledge from the media – the mainstream media, not the upstarts – to return to valuing being right over being first … and doing just the opposite by quoting anonymous sources.

Anonymous sources that got it wrong.

That’s one problem with anonymous sources: They often get it wrong because why make sure you have it right when you will not be held accountable for what you say.

And even if it is accurate, readers cannot judge the value of the material for themselves if they don’t know the source. Many sources hide behind anonymity to take cheap shots without anyone knowing they have an axe to grind or a dog in the fight.

And even more importantly, the frequent and often unnecessary use of anonymous sources reinforces the mistrust readers already have for journalists.

We ask to be trusted – and then over and over again give readers reasons to do the opposite.

The year 2013 was a banner year for bad reporting, much of it because of this accelerated rush to be first and turn those “scoops” into page views.

Kevin Smith, chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote in the January issue of Quill magazine that based on the hundreds of calls to the Society’s ethics hotline, “This might be the worst collapse of journalism standards we’ve seen in 50 years. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, social media and the uncontrollable urge to be the first to report, this has created a wrecking ball on our ethics.”

This false god – relying on anonymous sources to be first with a story – has always been a problem for journalism.

In the past, there were two major causes of this problem. Now there’s a third, and it threatens not only journalism but also our democracy.

At the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, we chose this quote from Jefferson as our motto: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Citizens are not well-informed when we get it wrong just to be first.

So why do we use anonymous sources?

The two traditional culprits for relying on anonymous sources are lazy reporters and competition.

Sometimes it’s hard getting a source to go on the record. You may have to call more than one person. You may have to put down the phone and knock on a door.

Sometimes the story is hard to write without the key quote, the quote that says what you need it to say, but no one will go on the record with it. So you call up someone who sees it as you do and offer anonymity – and get the quote you need.

It’s ain’t right – but it’s done.

As Adam Goldman admitted at that Colby conference:

“Because, guess what, I can get a source on the phone and just about get anything out of this person, you know, they’ll speculate, this or that.”

The drive to get it first – and use an anonymous source to help you – also comes from the long tradition of competition. That’s mostly been a macho tendency – seen in men and women – to win for the sake of winning and getting temporary bragging rights.

But until the Web came along with its ability to know right now how many people are reading your story – “page viewing” – there wasn’t a significant financial pressure to get it first – unless you go way back to the days of the yellow press and big city circulation wars.

Now, readers have become eyeballs. Eyeballs click on your story, tweet it, post it on Facebook, maybe it gets put up on Reddit — and all those eyeballs become pennies and pennies become dollars.

Those eyeballs are hungry, and we have to keep shoving food at them, regardless of its nutritional value.

As Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth government professor, recently wrote in Columbia Journalism Review:

“ … the near infinite size of the news hole that media outlets are now expected to try to fill online, on cable, and in social media, even when there is little new or accurate information available, exacerbates the challenge and creates perverse incentives … ”.

There appear to be four certain topics for winning the race for page views: Let’s call them Cats, Quizzes, Kardashians and Catastrophes.

The amateurs can take care of the cats.

The celebrity sites hold a lock on the Kardashians.

BuzzFeed and its ilk own the quizzes.

That leaves to us – the news media in all our formats – the bombings, the invasions, the mass shooting and the missing planes.

That’s what we have always been good at because it takes real reporting, real visuals, real experience.

The demand for coverage of such events has always been high – back in the print-only days, page-one coverage of events from assassinations to moon landings to military invasions would sell out even when we printed thousands of extra copies.

But those extra copies never meant much money. The cost of printing and delivering those copies ate up a good part of the extra sales. And one-time bumps in circulation don’t translate into higher print ad rates.

Now that has changed.

The cost of “publishing” news updates, for example, no longer means more newsprint, more ink, more delivery trucks on the road.

And those updates can be turned into revenue that mostly flows to the bottom line because they are not associated with a lot of extra expense (just make the reporter work faster).

Readers – for lack of a better term – expect it all, right now.

And if you can give it to them – they flock to your Web pages, Twitter account, your other digital platforms.

That translates into pressure to get it first at any cost, and since we are not supposed to make it up and because the people who can give us the latest often would rather not be quoted, we let them be anonymous.

And sometimes – quite a bit of the time – they either have it wrong or are just providing speculation or using the cover of anonymity to take a cheap shot.

Just consider the coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner. Much of it was speculation based on unnamed sources. It got so bad, that even a CNN anchor refused to play along with it any longer. And it was so pronounced, one day my wife and colleague, Naomi, pointed out to me with surprise that she found a whole story about it without one anonymous source – kudos to The Washington Post.

The tragedy of the overuse of anonymous source reporting is that we in the business have known for decades that we are abusing it; have known for decades that readers abhor it; and have promised for decades that we are going to toss this false god into the abyss.

I know – anonymous sources. Sounds oh, so exciting, film noirish, to have a Deep Throat slipping you the good stuff.

But let’s make a distinction about sources.

There’s the anonymous tipster and the anonymous source. They are not the same.

The anonymous tipster may give you documents, suggest lines of inquiry, tip you off to something juicy.

You might know her name, you might not.

Their documents may come in a plain brown envelope, no return address, which happened to us a couple years ago and led to a pretty good story about cronyism at the Maine state university system.

But here’s the thing: You never use that information unless you can verify it on the record. You do what you need to do to ensure the document is legit. You follow up on the tip and uncover documents or get on-the-record interviews that confirm – or not – the tip from your source.

There is no credibility problem with that so long as we publish only what is in the record or on the record.

At the Maine Center we have not yet, in four-plus years and nearly 200 investigative stories, used a single unattributed quote in our stories. We have taken advantage of a good many anonymous or off-the-record tips, but if we could not confirm a tip with an on-the-record source or documents, we have not used it.

We have lost a story or two because of that policy. One was about problems in the state’s environmental agency, but despite all of Naomi’s pleadings, the key sources would not go on the record. They went to another reporter, whose paper did not have as strict a policy as we do, and the story got published with the unnamed sources quoted.

The other sort of anonymity is what you find too often in news stories. And I am not talking primarily about bloggers and startup websites.

I’m more concerned with the traditional media that is still the primary source of almost all news because very few of the new media do more than feed off the original reporting done by newspapers, news services and the network – the ones that still have reporters going to city hall and the state house and sending teams to plane crashes.

These are the reporters and editors we still depend on to get the facts.

Let me stop here and agree that anonymous sources are sometimes necessary. Watergate would not have been broken without them. Diplomacy depends on, well, diplomacy, so no diplomat will ever say anything candid on the record because it could start an international crisis. And, rarely, someone’s life or health is truly at stake.

In my long career as a reporter and editor, I can recall using an anonymous source rarely. The particular story I recall was a series on police brutality in Gloucester, Mass. The source was a corroborating witness of a beating in a hospital waiting room where she worked in admitting. After seeing police repeatedly bash a suspect’s head on the hospital floor and knowing of a pattern of such behavior in that department, she was not being unreasonable to think she could be a victim herself.

A sidenote: The police were desperate to get her name. I was deposed under oath and declined to give them a name – citing my First Amendment rights 99 times. They took the newspaper and me to state court where they got a judge’s order requiring us to reveal the source or be held in contempt. One day before I was likely going to jail, a federal judge intervened and we eventually won that case.

When I broke into the business, in the late 1960s, it was a time when professionalism was on the rise and was muscling out the old-school approach.

Not every one of those old-school reporters abided by the tough-guy saying, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” – but a few still did.

I worked with one. He was my first city editor and he seemed cast for the part by Hollywood. He smoked cigars down to the nub, cheated on his expense account, wore stripes and plaids together and was known to say, “Don’t take anything you can’t eat or drink in one day.”

Stuck for a good quote, he would make up something and attribute it to a “West Gloucester man” or a “West Gloucester woman.” That would be him or his wife, the inimitable Bunny.

His name was Bill, and I loved him, loved his enthusiasm and his knowledge of the town and loved that I got a glimpse of the old-school newspapering.

But he was not a model of journalism ethics, that new commitment to professionalism that overtook the business in the 1970s.

But while we – the new breed – may have reported and written more professionally, the problem of credibility hung on.

We traded the wisecracking man-on-the street style quotes for something that sounded more high-toned – the “source close to the mayor” or “a spokesman,” no name used.

But it all means the same thing to readers: They don’t know who is speaking so they can’t trust it, they can’t tell if it is real or made up, they can’t tell if the source has an agenda or is even knowledgeable.

By the 1980s, we were beginning to see growing distrust between newspapers and readers. We weren’t down there with the proverbial used car salesman, but we were not rated far above that.

Depending on the reasons, that may be just fine.

We have a job to do, and no one loves the reporter who tells a town its police department is corrupt. Goes with the territory.

But there was another – more legitimate – problem.

In the mid-1980s, I was the editor of the Beverly Times, a daily paper on the Massachusetts North Shore. We – and the industry – were beginning to feel major threats to the business. The Internet was not yet one of them, although it wasn’t too far away from being a disruption bigger than radio and TV had been.

Then, just as now, the fear was loss of readership. You lose readers, you lose advertisers; you lose advertisers, you lose 80 percent of your revenue.

But why back then were we – the whole industry – losing readers?

What does anyone do when they have such a fundamental question? The industry commissioned a study.

Among the findings were that readers didn’t trust what they read. And one reason for that was “running stories that quote unnamed sources.”

Fifteen years later – in 1999 – the threats had not abated, and the loss of readers was accelerating. And now comes the Web and threats from all sorts of websites to the dominance of what we now call the legacy media.

Another study was commissioned. That study – funded by one of the very same groups that funded the earlier study — was called “Examining our Credibility.”

Among the findings:

“While focus group participants were surprisingly understanding of newsroom deadline constraints, most expressed a strong preference that newspapers not rush to publish, but focus on “getting it right” rather than “getting it first…”.

As one reader told the researchers:

“Very few things are so urgent (that should keep reporters from) having to verify a story. I understand the desire to be Number 1, but that’s no excuse not to be accurate.”

Yet, here we are in 2014, and reputable news sources – print, broadcast and Web – blame the wrong person for the Newtown shootings, get the wrong type of weapon in the Navy yard shootings and get a score of things – big things – wrong about the Boston Marathon bombing.

Who can we look to show us the right way to cover the news?

Who stands for the best traditions of quality journalism?

You might hope that the acknowledged best-in-the business news organization, The New York Times, would be setting that high standard for credibility.

But that is not always the case.

Its policies are strong – use anonymous sources sparingly, have a strong reason and explain them in detail.

And it has one ombudsman after another – they called them the public editor – saying the right thing over and over again about anonymous sources.

Daniel Okrent was the first public editor. This what he wrote 10 years ago:

“Since I’ve been in this job, use of anonymous sources has been the substantive issue raised most often by readers. … as Leonard Wortzel of Atlanta wrote, “whenever I come across a phrase like ‘according to a high official’ I translate it to mean ‘I, the reporter, will now state my opinion and disguise it as news’ …”.

When Okrent came across a possible misuse of anonymous sources, he would go to a Times editor for an explanation – and he’d get one, usually something about the quote being so important that it was worth granting anonymity. But I think Okrent’s candid translation of what they really meant is more meaningful: “The source was granted anonymity because the Times believed he had already spoken to one of its competitors.”

Okrent suggested a new policy for using anonymous sources: Treat permission to use an anonymous source like a fire extinguisher behind a glass door – “Break glass only in case of an emergency.”

Let’s turn to the Times’ current public editor, Margaret Sullivan.

She has been consistently strong on limiting the use of anonymous source – and consistently rebuffed.

Last August, looking back at her time as the public editor, Sullivan wrote, “I don’t feel so good about not being able to investigate every complaint …. or about failing to make a dent in longtime problems like the overuse of anonymous sources.”

She quotes a reader from Vermont, David Steinhardt, complaining about “pointless blind quotes from government officials that can easily serve to mask unaccountable half-truths and lies … I beseech The Times not to facilitate government acting like the Wizard of Oz – behind a curtain – when even stated reasons for doing so make no imaginable sense.”

Sullivan’s response: “Readers are right to protest when they see anonymity granted gratuitously. That’s happening too often. It’s time, once again, to pull in the reins … I’ve written about this from time to time, as have my predecessors, but to little or no avail.”

Now, frustrated by the Times’ continued abuse of anonymous sourcing, Sullivan is escalating her critique. She has started AnonyWatch, a feature devoted solely to the Times use – and often misuse – of anonymous sources.

Despite the promises to stop worshipping this false god, despite the pleadings of other journalists, not just the Times’ public editors – it never stops.

As I was working on this lecture, I took a break to catch up on the Times and read the coverage of the Chris Christie bridge controversy. There was a sidebar headlined, “Irate Friends See Sexism in Report on Former Christie Aide,” Bridget Anne Kelly.

The friends all were anonymous.

An example of the must-have quote:

“Anybody that knows Bridget knows that she’s always been a by-the-book mom with four kids,” said one, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to get entangled in any investigations.

How could a quote this innocuous get anyone tangled up in an investigation?

It’s just another case of wanting a story so bad – one that I presume will get many hits because who doesn’t like a scandal – that the Times once again forsakes its own policies.

Every day I look, this problem seems to get worse.

The most recent cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review is titled, “Who cares if it is true?”

I wish this were a parody by The Onion, but it’s not.

And if anyone thinks it is just a theory that content is driven by page views, I came across a recent piece by David Carr of the Times about a “growing trend in many corners of journalism to tie the compensation of journalists to the amount of web traffic and or articles they generate.”

This has spread from digital-only sites like The Street and Gawker to The Oregonian, one of the most-respected daily papers in the country. Reporters there will soon begin working under a quota system that requires a minimum number of posts per day that will escalate.

And when you are under that sort of pressure – the sort of pressure Adam Goldman was under – there will be a temptation if not a necessity to put up the unconfirmed, the unnamed source, speculation, rumor and other stuff that does not pass the rule we learned long ago here in Don Murray’s class.

It went something like this:

“There are two rules of reporting: “Accuracy and accuracy and if I were to add a third, it would be accuracy.”

Now, you may see the same dilemma I see in all of this:

Journalists, journalism critics, researchers and readers all stress the importance of credibility.

Yet, the more we put out, the faster we put it out there – right or wrong, it seems – the greater the success, if you measure success solely by how many people look at what you write.

I doubt this dilemma can be decisively resolved.

But what I have been reading in the journalism journals – and from what I hear in the many community groups Naomi and I speak to – is that readers want credibility. They crave news, but they value credibility, too.

To those that say that my argument ignores the inevitability of what is now called post-platform journalism – the idea that these standards are outdated, and that journalists from my era don’t “get it” – I found the following comment from the Times magazine’s ethicist comforting:

“Just because something is inevitable,” wrote Chuck Klosterman, “does not make it moral.”

Can we survive and be moral – or, I’d say, ethical.

I don’t have that answer.

But I am certain that I’d rather try and have faith in our readers to value the very best, verifiable reporting we can give as fast as that can be done.

Despite what appears to be a decline in our commitment to credibility, there are a couple positive signs.

First, the new media can be and often is an aid to accuracy. Postings on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, etc., all can be fresh sources for reporters and potentially add up to more sources than a single reporter can develop on her own.

All the reporter needs to make use of that fresh material is a thing that Hemingway recommends that you acquire if you don’t already have one:

It’s called a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.

The other hopeful note? Let’s go back to Adam Goldman and the conference at Colby College.

I asked him at the end of the panel discussion what he thought of the abuse of unnamed sources and what can be done about it.

Here’s what he said:

“… I wish my editors would say, ‘Can’t use it unless it’s on the record,’ and I’d say, ‘OK. I’ll fight like hell to get it on the record – might not be a whole lot of information, but at least you’d know who was saying it, right?’ I’m down with that. Let’s have a revolution in the newsroom. I think it would be great. There’d be less information out there for the public, but you’re right, at least we’d know who was saying it.”

Adam has it right.

Each reporter can pledge, as Daniel Okrent said, to use anonymous sources only in an emergency. It will help if editors and publishers get on that wagon, too, if we all recognize we are trading our birthright for short term gains.

The press is the only business, the only craft protected by the Bill of Rights.

We should be grateful and ennobled by that honor that gave us a unique and essential role in our democracy – the true god we are duty bound to serve.

John Christie is the co-founder and editor in chief of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit, non-partisan journalism service that publishes investigative reporting about Maine state government. Christie is a media executive whose 40-year career includes work in four states as a writer, editor, general manager and publisher for newspapers owned by Tribune Co., Dow Jones and Co. and the Seattle Times Co.

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