Saturday, March 29, 2008

Maybe they missed the session on anonymous sources?

I find myself disturbed today as I finally get around to reading an otherwise good Washington Post profile of Ben Scott, "Net Neutrality's Quiet Crusader."

Right there, 10 grafs down in Cecilia Kang's article, is this graf:

Free Press's critics -- who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions on net neutrality policy are ongoing -- say the group often oversimplifies complex technical issues, dismissing the importance of some network management practices that block spam and pornography, for example. Free Press is also not the populist group it makes itself out to be, critics noted, partnering with corporate interests when it suits its goals, as it did with Google on net neutrality. Also, they said the group is not as boot-strapped as it may appear, with donors such as billionaire George Soros and singer Barbra Streisand.

Let's accept the argument, for a second, that absolutely no one -- not a one -- of anyone who is on the other side of this debate would go on the record. Still, whatever happened to the idea that you don't use anonymous sources for ad hominem attacks. You may use them for hard information. You may use them to explain their side's position (sometimes, though we overdo that). But you don't use them to launch brickbats at the other side.

That's Journalism 101.

Don't give me the "balance" argument -- that's he said-she said journalism. Doing so anonymously lets the scoundrels off the hook. (And besides, Kang essentially parroted the funding stuff in the next graf, though pointing out that its lobbying budget is far less than the budgets of its opponents.)

So if Kang *really* *wasn't* *able* in this large nation to find anyone who would go on the record on a topic that has had life for some time now, then maybe the only sentence in that story should have been:

None of the Free Press's critics would go on the record with their criticism.

Sometimes, it's actually journalism to say to the other side -- especially when the other side is no babe in the woods when it comes to working the system: You want your voice heard, then speak up on the record.

(For the record, nothing here is ideological. I'd write the same thing were it Scott anonymously taking a shot at the other side.)

(This is also my monthly Carnival of Journalism entry; the Carnival this month is hosted by Will Sullivan at Journerdism.)

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At 3/29/08, 2:45 PM, Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

This bugs me too. Policies at The Washington Post and The New York Times about anonymous sources always sound strict and noble when stated, but in real life, the use of anonymous sources is practically the default mode for those papers. I created The Anonymeter to track the Times' use of anonymous sources, and it turns out the Times averages at least three a day. Every few hours there's another anonymous source. The Post is nearly as prolific, and as casual. There seems to be a culture that thinks it's not real news unless it comes from an anonymous source. Anything you can get on the record must be PR and spin.

Beware of the anonymous sources with direct quotes. Those are most likely to be of questionable value.

And as Dave Barry once said, "The Washington Post gets its weather report from an anonymous source."

At 3/30/08, 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, but I think that the new online style helps here. Perhaps this is one of those areas where in future the etiquette will be relaxed. In future, perhaps we will allow journalists to say "I think that this group has a narrow view and ignores x aspect of this issue". That way they can avoid specious formulations such as 'critics say..'.

At 4/4/08, 7:02 AM, Blogger Forest Jefferson said...

existence of ideologies in such areas is inevitable.


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