What do the New York Times and other reputable media have in common with the National Enquirer? They're all addicted to anonymous sources.
The confabulation about Koran desecration published in Newsweek - and in fact almost every recent scandal in American journalism - has the use of anonymous sources at its core. Those who criticize the news media for political bias are misplacing their concern, because the chief weakness of the news media doesn't boil down to ideology at all, but rather a craft practice that should no longer be permitted. In fact, anonymous sources are banned from many newsrooms, including the Idaho Statesman.
I was a reporter and editorial writer at the Idaho Statesman for more than 11 years and I can flatly say that neither my colleagues nor I ever used anonymous sources - ever. We openly went about our work of rooting out corruption, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable and exposing hypocrisy. We did this by citing documents, naming names, identifying titles and attributing everything. We never questioned this, because we knew that if we were going to demand openness and accountability from officials, we must display these in our own work. Interviewees sometimes gulped when we asked for their names and titles and they occasionally asked for anonymity, but everyone knew our local institutional culture demands that journalists attribute information.
That transparency is a far cry from the large coastal media and wire services. In fact, it is difficult to find a story in the elite media that doesn't have anonymous sources. Pick up the nearest copy of Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, etc., and practically every story will use the phrases "according to sources," "sources said," "according to a high-placed official," etc. Amazingly, some of these are used with a direct quote from the nameless source. It would not surprise me if their weather page attributed the day's forecast to "a high-placed administration official at the National Weather Service."
The argument for anonymous sources is that sometimes, it's the only way to get vital information. That's nice in theory, but in reality, anonymous sources use the media to plant false information, snipe at enemies, start rumors, embarrass the media, dupe the public and display their ignorance. I argue that, in American journalism as it is currently practiced, the harm in using anonymous sources is much greater than the harm in not using them (Deep Throat included) and that journalism and the public interest are, without exception, better served with accountability.
In contrast to the culture of institutional openness seen in Boise, elite media work in a culture where sources regularly give "background briefings" and expect anonymity with no questions asked. Sources are appealing to the egos reporters and editors, giving them a feeling of inclusion and of being "big-time" and sophisticated. The practice is so ingrained that when Newsweek did its obligatory soul-searching follow-up story explaning the scandal, they used - you guessed it - anonymous sources.
Basically, these sources control what gets published, not the journalists, and the results can be disastrous, even lethal. Public information is the foundation of public policy and it must be disseminated with accountability, openness and transparency. If it's not on the record, it shouldn't be part of the record.
As for solutions, I think journalism schools also have a role to play. During my time in journalism school, the ethics of using anonymous sources were never discussed, although perhaps that has changed.
Even more effective would be for The Statesman and other non-elite newspapers to hold the major media to our standards. I encourage The Statesman and other media to boycott any story from any wire or news service that contains anonymous sources. This may seem idealistic, but it is idealistic to think the credibility of American journalism can be maintained with repeated scandals.
If openness and accountability work for us in Boise, they should work for anyone, anywhere, and The Statesman should demand these virtues for its readers.
Martin Johncox is a Boise public relations consultant and can be reached at www.alexanderandassociates.com.