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American Journalism Review
Important if True  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2003

Important if True   

Despite periodic spasms of concern over discredited stories relying on unnamed sources, the practice of granting anonymity has survived and thrived. Will the Jayson Blair episode reverse the momentum?

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     

Related reading:
   » Who Said That?
   » Going Nameless
   » One Paper's Policy

It was that Sunday morning in May when the New York Times landed at people's doorsteps with a bit more of a resounding thud than usual. Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple was at his Denver home and, like many in the news business, mesmerized by that edition with its promised account of what exactly happened with story thief and fabricator Jayson Blair, an infamous and overplayed tale now, but then, still a jaw-dropping stunner with a back story worth getting up early on a Sunday to read about.

With appalled fascination, Temple delved into the entire saga that morning, the inventing of details from locations Blair never visited, the outrageous lying, the seeming obliviousness of management. At times the editor said to himself, "I can't believe what I'm reading." But Temple hadn't even gotten to the part about how Blair, already an employee with something of a Times rap sheet for disturbing corrections and erratic behavior, contrived anonymous sources for reports about the D.C.-area sniper. Blair's editors hadn't asked for the identity of those sources even though the story was controversial--they didn't even ask after officials involved with the case questioned the accuracy of Blair's information.

The next day, his shock still fresh, Temple dialed the New York Times when he got to work. He wanted to get Editor Howell Raines on the line, hoping the top Timesman could explain how the nation's most esteemed daily could play so loose with sourcing. "I said, 'I'm John Temple, editor of the Rocky Mountain News and a subscriber. I want to talk with Howell Raines about anonymous sources. I'm concerned as a subscriber and for what I put in my paper.' " Not surprisingly, Raines, who shortly thereafter resigned, was a tad busy that day and didn't get on the phone. But a Times spokeswoman did, telling Temple that the paper's anonymous source policy was essentially that it didn't have one. In other words, Times editors and reporters don't necessarily discuss anonymous quotes before they're published, a well-worn practice at many smaller papers.

As someone who makes his own staff jump through hoops before allowing a nameless quote into print, the Times' anything-goes approach didn't sit well with Temple. Right then he decided that if the Times couldn't guarantee that anonymous material was at least as checked and double-checked as his own reporters', then anonymous Times stories weren't automatically going into his paper. Already the Rocky has passed on Times copy that, pre-Blair, would have run.

"Blair's a fraud. I'm not worried that reporters at the New York Times in general are frauds," Temple explains. "To me the discussion is central not because people would act out of malice--not like Jayson Blair--but because newspapers are better when they're discussed, weighed and critiqued."

Along with the thousand and one other Blairisms editors have since lost sleep over, the young reporter's abuse of anonymous sourcing, though arguably not the worst of his sins, left certain journalists nervous about their own papers' standards. The could-it-happen-here factor. So much talking has begun--policy talk in newsrooms, ombudsman talk aimed at reassuring dubious readers...even some talk about cracking down on anonymity. Though plenty of people have long felt anonymity is overused, if not abused, it's only become a more popular reporting tool through the years. Some think that if anything can temper the trend, Jayson Blair's shenanigans might be it.

Trusting information from dubious sources has always given editors pause. When Moses tumbled down the mountain with his breaking Ten Commandments news, no doubt when he reached the bottom, some editor probably wanted a bit more proof that the information actually came from God. Unquestionably, it was Watergate that gave anonymity such allure. After the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toppled the Nixon Administration in the 1970s with tips from the mysterious "Deep Throat," it was not only acceptable to drop secret sources into copy, it was almost desirable--every Lois Lane at every Daily Bugle wanted the cachet that comes with the feeling that a source is dispensing critical information only to them.

But bit by bit, incident by incident, reality began tarnishing the anonymity facade. There was fabricator Janet Cooke in 1980, who, by using unnamed sources as the foundation for a made-up Pulitzer winner about an 8-year-old heroin addict, singlehandedly deflated the anonymity legend her paper had built. Anonymity, for a while, seemed to conjure risk rather than glory. But by 1994, journalists squawked anew over O.J. coverage (see "Judgment Calls," September 1994). The "trial of the century" hit a roadblock after a TV reporter broadcast a report from an anonymous source that blood on a sock in the former football star's Brentwood mansion matched that of his murdered ex-wife. Judge Lance Ito threatened to ban TV cameras and called the reporting "outrageous" and "irresponsible." The station later admitted parts of the story were wrong.

After O.J., not unlike after Cooke, journalism declaration- makers heralded the end of an era for unnamed sources (see "Anonymous Sources," December 1994). Not so. Fast-forward to the torrential Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky newsstorm (see package of stories, March 1998). Anonymous was the Everysource in that affair, and the hand-wringing resumed in earnest. In the thick of things, the Committee of Concerned Journalists examined more than 2,000 statements reported by TV, newspapers, magazines and the Associated Press as well as some tabloid publications and shows. The group found that six in 10 anonymous utterings were characterized about as vaguely as possible, and it basically concluded that this sort of lax reporting was bad for business. Yet still no end to the era. More fast-forwarding brings us here, to Jayson Blair, wondering how things got this bad. Or, how bad they are.

Because for all the times anonymity has backfired, there have been countless instances of its benefits. It's revealed truths of wrongdoings that almost certainly would never have come out had a nervous whistleblower not been offered the security and sanctity that anonymity provides.

Love them or hate them, anymore anonymous quotes are standard--in D.C., any fashionable source wouldn't be caught dead without them. Much of the time many officials simply won't speak on the record. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says we're at the point where the media's anonymity standards have slipped and sources are taking advantage. "In the last 25 years, anonymous sources have gone from a tool journalists used to coax reluctant sources into speaking to a condition that those who would manipulate the news media are using," Rosenstiel says, adding that you can tell things are out of hand when you call spokespeople to speak and even they decline. "When paid mouthpieces are granted anonymity, that's ridiculous."

What gives Blair's offense extra sting is that it comes at a time when journalists are realizing that readers, even on good days, are taking their reportage with a few grains of salt. An Associated Press Managing Editors survey after Jayson Blair found that many readers, even if they spotted an error, wouldn't call it in because they think journalists don't care. Worse yet, some of them think that the mistakes are done purposefully for embellishment.

Society of Professional Journalists President Robert Leger thinks anonymous sources contribute to the industry's low credibility figures. "Jayson Blair," he says, "only gives readers more ammunition. People are going to say, 'If they blew it on that one, why should we believe this?' "

It didn't take long after John Temple's declared crackdown on New York Times wire copy for the new law of the land to come into play. It happened the very next day. The Times sent out a piece about the United States military announcing it would shoot Iraqi looters on sight. The reporting included nary a name, citing only "officials." And though it had run above the fold in the Times, Temple said no way it was going in the Rocky. The stuff wasn't being reported elsewhere and, Temple decided, "If they shoot a looter, I figured we'd know about it soon enough." The following day many other media outlets quoted officials with names denying the Times report.

Since then, Temple guesses he's said no thanks to at least two other Times stories with iffy sourcing. He's careful to point out that his stand has nothing to do with contempt for the Times and everything to do with maintaining the highest standards for his paper and protecting its integrity. "I stress that I'm not a New York Times basher," Temple says. "I have tremendous respect for that paper, but there still is an issue, no matter how good a [reporter] is, when you're dealing with anonymous sources."

At the Syracuse Post-Standard, Executive Editor Mike Connor isn't certain that using anonymous sources makes readers doubt the news. But, he figures, if his own reading habits are any indication, it certainly doesn't help--after Jayson Blair to be sure. "Blair makes it really clear," he says. "You can see the value of rigorous and high standards."

Connor likes the idea of being able to give his readers such conclusive information in a story, such "scientific proof," that the accuracy is beyond doubt. "Ideally newspaper reporting is built on a solid foundation of fact that any reader could go out and gather the same facts," he says. "When you have unnamed sources, that's impossible."

Which is why, Connor, too, is now keeping a closer eye on wire copy with unnamed sources. He's asked his news and sports desks to look "very carefully" at wire offerings before using them--though there's so much anonymity in major national stories these days, playing hardball to keep his pages free of it isn't easy. "If we hold [wire] to the same standards [as local], would we still have an A-section? Would we still have a Washington page?" he half-jokes.

So now if, say, a Washington Post story quotes a "top military official," Post-Standard editors will decide whether to run the story, and if so, how. They could cut the nameless quote or, they could leave it and try to explain to readers that the stuff in the story can't be vouched for, but "it's news we can't ignore." Not long ago someone showed Connor a Civil War-era edition of his paper that had a battlefield gossip section called "Important if true." Maybe, he jokes, they can revive that section to house the anonymous wire copy.

The Times has recently gotten complaints and questions from its wire clients about the paper's use of anonymous sources. According to a Times spokesman, sourcing is one of the topics in-house investigators are looking into in the aftermath of Jayson Blair. After the committee makes recommendations, "[W]e will be able to discuss any changes in our sourcing policy," Toby Usnik, the Times' director of public relations, wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "That said, in light of recent events, it would be accurate to say that there has been increased vigilance by our newsroom staff with regard to sourcing."

In a May column headlined "According to Someone," Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler said that since the New York Times' problems surfaced, readers have sought him out, worried about the Post's credibility--and he's worried, too. He wrote that people's skepticism "is being reinforced by a lack of confidence caused by the extent of anonymous sourcing."

Getler explained that the Post has sourcing rules and that, sometimes, the need for sensitive information trumps that for names. Still, he continued, the Post asks reporters to try everything to get material on the record before going off of it, and if they must, then they should tell readers why and try to describe who spoke and their motivations to do so. But, Getler concluded, "My impression is that these rules have largely fallen by the wayside, along with demands by editors to know sources' identities, because the use of unnamed sources has become so routine. The administration wins simply by refusing to allow the use of any attribution other than 'senior administration officials.' "

Deborah Howell, who runs Newhouse News Service's Washington bureau, acknowledges that anonymous quoting runs amok in D.C. "They're very overused in Washington," she says. "It's gotten to be such a culture that everybody expects to be anonymous." That said, she works hard to make sure that her people don't hang with the pack. Though the major papers say allowing anonymity is the only way to stay competitive, Howell's reporters avoid the device, even in the thick of D.C., because they generally don't cover breaking news--they're concentrating on enterprise and analysis.

Howell's approach is "You can hide a source from readers, but you don't hide a source from me." When the issue does come up, as it does from time to time, she's got rigid rules. "We do not let them negatively slam someone in a story. I don't like them high up in a story. I don't like a whole story based on anonymous sources," she says, ticking off a few of her guidelines.

Guidelines are also on the mind of Jack McElroy, editor of Knoxville's News-Sentinel. At the head of the Tennessee paper for about a year and a half, McElroy decided after Blair that now was the time to put the News-Sentinel's anonymity rules in writing--basically, he says, the paper had a "strict" policy, but it was word of mouth and some "people knew the rules, but some might not have." "What I wanted to do," he says, "was shut the barn door before the horse got out."

McElroy doesn't believe the Jayson Blair case indicates a new wave of sourcing trouble or even that the debacle will substantially diminish the New York Times' credibility. However, he does think it's oh-so-indicative of major gaps in the industry's standards, particularly when it comes to the media outlets dispensing the nation's wire copy. "I think people realize that bad or rogue people can arise in any industry," he says. "Whether this points out a problem in quality control of the New York Times, that's the larger issue."

Though McElroy strives to bolster his paper's sourcing etiquette, he hasn't found a good way to address the wire issue. Not that he's unaware of the risks. Handling wire copy, he says, is "a little bit of a crack in the dike." "You can set standards for local, but you get wire copy and you just have no idea," he laments. "You have to hope they have good judgment and are adhering to high standards."

In the immediate aftermath of Blair, editors by the dozen felt obligated to offer their readers some sort of assurance, some sort of promise that despite the disturbing New York Times tales they heard about on TV, read about in national magazines and laughed about with David Letterman, the news business wasn't all bad--in fact, they desperately wanted to note, they were doing their best. Most often these pleas for understanding and respect manifested themselves in columns to readers. And often these columns pointedly mentioned anonymous sources.

Under headlines like "Building, maintaining readers' trust is vital" and "Unnamed sources not part of our routine," many editors publicly aired what's usually much more private soul-searching. Mike King, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's public editor, told readers of an editor/reporter heart-to-heart after Blair on ethics and credibility. He described how the staff talked about their error count, when to credit other news organizations, and not only how much they should trust wire stories that rely on nameless sources, but how they should handle anonymity in-house. He wrote: The Blair scandal has "everything to do with how seriously we guard our credibility and police ourselves. The issues it raises are the bedrock of the relationship we have with readers."

That could be a lot of inside baseball for a comics-and-coupons sort of subscriber. But King thinks that because Jayson Blair exposed average Joes to the seamy side of news, showed them a host of appalling ways reporters could trample their trust, readers have a better view of the game than ever. "Jayson Blair has opened up for readers the inside world of editing," King says, adding that after the Blair story broke, calls from concerned readers "increased phenomenally"--and almost two months later had not let up. "The result of Jayson Blair is we have to articulate [our policies] for the public as opposed to just the journalists." Despite the current climate of distrust--King says, "There's an assumption out there that we [use anonymous sources] all the time and it's not a big deal. But we don't and it is a big deal."--he thinks readers will believe stories with anonymous sources if they are skillfully presented. "It depends on how good we are at being able to explain ourselves," he says. "They think we do it too often. They think we do it too lazily. I think there's some truth to that. But when we right this ship a little bit, our credibility will come back."

In Cleveland, Plain Dealer Editor Douglas C. Clifton has noticed that since Jayson Blair, even readers who'd never paused to consider ink-stained mainstays like attribution and sourcing are suddenly budding media analysts. "This isn't just an issue in the hothouse journalism press," he says, adding that readers normally skeptical of unnamed sources have less faith in the tactic than ever. It's an extreme case of "everyone's a critic."

Readers, never shy about missing a dig at the media--it's almost as fun as lawyer-bashing--have added New York Times cheap shots to their repertoire. "Like, if you run a New York Times story, they'll say, 'It's not like the New York Times has an unblemished record,' or something like that," Clifton says, describing something that happened to one of his features columnists. A couple days after the Times' Blair mea culpa, the writer did a piece on dignity--how people in menial jobs don't get treated with it. She talked about two cabbies in Washington and didn't name them. The day it ran, she got a dozen nasty e-mails challenging the existence of the cabbies.

"It's a reminder that for artistic reasons, you can elect not to use a name," Clifton says. "But if a reader is going to be suspicious about it, maybe we really ought not to."

Clifton says that immediately after Blair, the newsroom had a leadership meeting, "asking ourselves if something like that could happen here," and the idea of tightening the anonymity policy came up. As it stands, at the very least, a reporter who wants to use a quote without a name must tell his editor who said it. "The Times took it as a matter of policy that you don't ask--that really encouraged corner-cutting and slovenliness," Clifton says. "That was a shocker."

But Clifton has no plans to transform his newsroom policy or to fortify the paper's gates against errant wire copy. "I don't believe [Blair] represents the norm of journalism any more than the behavior of the Enron executives represented the practices of corporations." Neither does Mark Seibel, managing editor/news at Clifton's former paper, the Miami Herald. Seibel thinks journalism shouldn't be getting into a sweat over sourcing. "You can think about attribution and think about anonymous sources--it's easy to get all caught up in Jayson Blair, a horrifying incident," he says. "But let us not forget we have committed inaccuracies in much broader kinds of stories--are we thinking about that?"

Seibel, who in September becomes managing editor/ international at Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, theorizes that if we did away with all unnamed sources, that would be one way to deal with Blair-esque risks. "But we quote lots of named sources and never question what they say to us," he counters. "You can't get rid of anonymous sources to solve your problem. Just because someone said something doesn't mean it's true."

Just the same, Seibel, like lots of newsroom managers, took the opportunity to send his staff a reminder of the Herald's anonymous sources policy. Across the state in Sarasota, staff at the Herald-Tribune got a similar e-mail refresher.

However, unlike Seibel, Diane Tennant, Sarasota's managing editor, sees danger in anonymity, at the very least, the danger of losing credibility with readers. "This is something important for newsrooms and journalists to be discussing," she says. "Readers already suspect papers of making things up and being sensational and of cutting corners, and so it's our job to reinforce to our readers [what we do], making our processes transparent." In the name of transparency, Herald-Tribune Executive Editor Janet Weaver's post-Blair column explained that because of her paper's strict sourcing policy, some of Blair's sniper stories didn't make it past the wire editor. "One of my first editors told me that if you can't know information on the is not worth knowing," Weaver wrote to readers. "I still believe that. Showing readers where we get our information is an important part of preserving our credibility."

Mike King at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution senses that in the wake of perhaps the industry's classic embarrassment, things just might be looking up. Anonymity abuse is out of the closet and hence, he says, "This will chill us a little on that. It's a price we ought to be able to pay for overusing these things."

Still, he knows there's only so much he and the editors who sit near him can do. So they create the best set of sourcing rules in the country--any reporter hell-bent on cheating could still dodge them. So they police their local reporters to the nth degree--there's still the wire copy that they'll never be able to stand behind yet can't do without. As Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says, "the norms of journalism are set at the top." King must wait for a move, then, from the top.

He can't stop D.C.'s elite from reporting anonymous whispers. He can't force the New York Times to change its policies. "That's going to have to be dealt with on a more cultural level," King says. "We can choose or not choose to run things from wire sources." And though on the surface all those options sound great, in reality, in the heat of deadline, there might not be so much choice--and King knows that, too. "It's tough for a national editor to get a story from the Times at 9 p.m. and to call New York and say we need to get some information," he says. But they're going to try.

"The reality," says Seibel, "is that the New York Times might get things wrong. While we're sitting here selecting a New York Times story for page one as the end all and be all, we should remember it's not always right--even the best can be wrong.... We should all be aware of that and make our own judgments." "All of us are going through this right now," King says. "Every major paper in the country is examining this.... It's just gonna be a new day for American newspapers."

So by scaring editors silly, maybe Jayson Blair scared them straight. "That was a frightening experience what happened, to editors around the country," King says. "The legacy here could be a good one for the paper, even though [Blair] doesn't deserve that legacy."



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