Gene Gambale of Indio, Calif., is among the readers who wrote to complain in recent weeks. “I have noticed a continuous and disturbing trend of relying upon unnamed sources,” Gambale said. “I believe that is poor journalism and deprives the reader of any way to evaluate, on their own, the credibility of those sources or the accuracy of the statements they make.”
Another reader, Paul Landaw, writes almost weekly about what he considers the reckless use of unnamed officials, followed by his signature signoff: “I am, as always, on the record for full attribution.”
I agree with readers that anonymous sources can be overused and abused. But, throughout history, some of those who have spoken up provided information that exposed grave government failings, and also strengthened democracy.
Had the legions of unnamed not come forward, the C.I.A. black-site prisons would never have come to light. Nor would the government’s wiretapping of private citizens, or the investigations of a potential bridge between the Trump team and Moscow. If anonymous sources sometimes connote the weakest journalism, other times they signal the best.
Not all anonymous information is created equal. Too many stories slip through editors’ hands containing unattributed information so trivial that it need not be published, or so self-serving that its source should not have been handed a mic. This category may be small, but it’s a spoiler.
The crucial issue is that The Times doesn’t make a priority of telling readers more about sources’ motives and about their proximity to the information they claim to know something about. On motive: Is the person trying to stop a policy from going forward, perhaps, or trying to get it approved? On credibility: Was the source actually in the meeting where decisions were made, or did he or she hear about it thirdhand? It isn’t always possible for reporters to provide this information, but not enough time is spent trying.
Several letters came in after the gripping and deeply reported article by Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman portraying the chaotic life of a fledgling White House. It begins with an omniscient description of aides in unfamiliar surroundings, a president watching TV in his bathrobe and efforts to redo the Oval Office playbook.
At paragraph eight the article describes the numerous sources it relied on: “Interviews with dozens of government officials, congressional aides, former staff members and other observers of the new administration, many of whom requested anonymity.”
It is not clear from the description, however, whether any of the sources had a firsthand account of the White House activity or what motives they might have had for revealing information. After the article was published, the White House pushed back, as it often does, this time taking issue with the idea that Trump even owns a robe, the least newsworthy fact in the piece.
I mention this not to single out Haberman and Thrush, experienced political reporters, but to highlight a common practice: stories that offer too little help for incredulous readers.
Two days after the story ran, Thrush told listeners on the Times podcast, The Daily, that he and Haberman ran every fact past two White House aides 24 hours before publication. That would have been valuable information to include in the story, and might have allayed concerns of doubtful readers.
Another story, by Julie Hirschfeld Davis, described a private meeting between the Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and Senator Richard Blumenthal, at which Gorsuch characterized Trump’s criticism of judges as demoralizing. How did The Times know what occurred in a closed-door meeting? Because Blumenthal actually came out and spoke to reporters. Only the story didn’t say that, and many readers were perplexed. No doubt the missing attribution resulted from a slip-up, but it was one that got past several editors.
Peter Baker, an accomplished veteran of White House reporting, said that everyone could probably do better at telling readers more about the sources they rely on. “We ought to go back to see what we can negotiate,” he said. “I understand how readers can find it disconcerting.” But he added: “Some sources are so scared that they don’t want to have any type of description that would narrow down the search. It’s a toxic environment.”
Nearly a year ago, The Times issued stricter rules about the use of anonymous sources after a pair of embarrassing stories, relying on unnamed officials, turned out to be wrong. The new procedures require more oversight by top editors and Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, says the new rules have had a positive impact. Still, he agrees more could be done.
There is a wide and perilous gulf between the value journalists place on anonymous sources and the value readers do. Some may never accept information with roots they cannot see. But many others might, if more rigor was placed on convincing them. With a new administration in office and so much at stake, now is a good time to approach that task in earnest.
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