Sourcing is on the mind of at least three public editors this summer.
Chris Elliott (readers editor for the UK Guardian), A.S. Panneerselvan (readers’ editor for The Hindu) and Sylvia Stead (public editor for the Globe and Mail in Canada) all have written about the issue in the past month.
Stead started things off with her June 26 post, “Why using anonymous sources is sometimes necessary,” which responded to readers’ questions about the use of anonymous sources or the vague “sources say.”
Specifically, readers were concerned about a June 16 article accusing “improper influence of Chinese officials over Ontario Minister Michael Chan.” Stead said the article was “unassailably in the public interest” and noted she has “received no complaints about the facts in the Globe and Mail‘s articles.” Further she quoted the Globe and Mail reporter responsible for the story, who allowed anonymity because the sources, “people in the Chinese-Canadian community…feared reprisals in their jobs.”
Stead explained the Globe and Mail‘s guidelines for allowing anonymous sources:
“The Globe considers anonymous sources a last resort, to be used only after reporters have exhausted all other ways to get the information on the record. Even then, anonymity is allowed only when the information is sufficiently important – not permitted for ad hominem attacks – and the sources must be described as fully as possible. That is why you will see ‘a senior government official’ mentioned in some stories or ‘a source close to the mayor’ in others.”
She also pointed out that anonymous sources are risky for journalists:
“Journalists are keenly aware that anonymous sources are not ideal. They also know that, if anonymous sources lie or get key facts wrong, it is the journalists, not the sources, who end up with egg on their faces, or worse.”
The Hindu Asks Questions about Needing Anonymous Sources
Panneerselvan wrote July 4,”When to Grant Anonymity,” raising numerous questions that reporters may confront when deciding on granting anonymity:
“What will a reporter do if he or she comes to know that a source who is demanding anonymity has also spoken to other media outlets that have agreed to grant anonymity? Can he or she afford to kill the story by refusing to grant anonymity? How do you cover events as they are unfolding where the political and bureaucratic leadership is mulling over the exact course of action, and where a range of internal discussions are taking place but no one wants to be officially cited? What happens if ministers and bureaucrats think that they are under a gag order, sometimes real and sometimes perceived, from the leadership? If The Washington Post did not recognise the value of an anonymous source, Deep Throat, what would have happened to the Watergate Investigations? Isn’t it true that people who have access to power and information are also under pressure? Isn’t it true that they tend to talk more freely and candidly if anonymity is offered?”
Panneerselvan noted that there certainly are instances when anonymity is needed but standards need to be raised in granting blanket anonymity often.
“There is no denying the fact that many individuals in the position of informing the public are not prepared to be quoted. There is a climate of comfort in anonymity starting from the local bodies level to the national level,” Panneerselvan wrote. “It is true that reporters, collectively, have conceded too much space for anonymity.”
More questions Panneerselvan put to his readers:
“Will the political and bureaucratic leadership insist on anonymity if the media as one entity refuses to entertain such a request? Don’t they also gain by dissemination of information? Isn’t it a fact that leaders need the media as much as the media needs them? If we grant anonymity, do we have a mechanism to sift through all the details to draw the line that divides political spin from genuine information?”
He added, “I am not arguing for the total elimination of anonymous sources from journalism. I recognise that there are reports of immense public interest that rely on confidential sources, where anonymity is vital for the safety and security of the sources. The only way to pay respect to worthwhile confidential sources is to demand attribution from a regular provider of routine information.”
Guardian on Trusting Outside Sources
Elliott’s July 6 take on sourcing was headlined “How the Guardian decides which sources can be deemed trustworthy” and focused on when to trust outside sources for Guardian reports.
As an example, Elliott pointed to the Guardian‘s June 11 coverage of actor Christopher Lee’s death. The Guardian didn’t have independent confirmation when the news broke, but wanted to publish a story so it had to decide whether to trust news reports. He explained:
“On this occasion, the Guardian decided to rely on the weight of coverage by other news organisations, including the Telegraph, which claimed a world exclusive and said that Christopher Lee’s widow had withheld the news of his death until all the family could be informed. That judgment was proved correct, but as a rule that would not necessarily be enough.”
But for every day occasions, Elliott detailed how the Guardian handles sourcing stories that are breaking:
“In practical terms, the time of greatest pressure for the Guardian is in the early mornings at 7 a.m., when journalists in London arrive and are keen to get the day’s news moving by generating a number of stories. Early versions of breaking stories may come from agencies or be written, properly attributed, from the reports of other news organisations before the Guardian can research and write its own. As a way of informing Guardian readers that a particular story has been broken and letting them know broadly what it is about, it is a legitimate practice, providing the stories are properly attributed.”
Elliott reminded that it’s vital for the Guardian to provide clear information about sourcing for trust and credibility reasons.
“If [The Guardian] is running a story where verification is an issue and the terms in which the story has been presented don’t accurately reflect what we know and when we knew it, that undermines the Guardian,” he wrote. “The issue is simple: trust. It is important that journalists adhere as closely to the guidelines as possible if we are to retain the credibility that gives us such domain authority, even if we are occasionally a little late to the party.”