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From AJR,   December 1994  issue

Offside on O.J.   

Related reading:   Using Unnamed Sources
  Anonymous Sources
  "On Deep Background"

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     

The O.J. Simpson case has generated so many stories based on anonymous sources that Los Angeles Daily News writer Ray Richmond has suggested setting up a "Rent-a-Source" service for reporters. It would, he wrote, be an "incredible business opportunity."

"With Rent-a-Source, unsubstantiated information and idle rumor are just a phone call away," he wrote. Sources come in many flavors, he added, including "reliable source: one who has yet to be indicted"; "outside source: a person who has been indicted but has media contacts"; and "unnamed sources: people who don't want their names used because they're just making it up."

Like all good satire, Richmond's is uncomfortably close to the truth. The Simpson case has resulted in numerous erroneous stories based on false information attributed to unnamed sources. Among them were reports that:

G A bloody ski mask had been found at the murder site. Prosecutor Marcia Clark later told the court, "There is no ski mask."

G The murder weapon was a military digging tool. A deputy medical examiner has testified the murders were carried out with one or more knives.

G Simpson acted strangely during his plane flight to Chicago shortly after the murders and kept his hand in a bag during the flight. Several people on the plane said Simpson was not behaving oddly and didn't hide his hand in anything.

G At the time of his arrest, Simpson had scratches on his body that made it look as if he had been in a fight. Police witnesses testified Simpson had a small cut and a laceration on one finger.

G DNA testing showed that blood on a sock found in Simpson's bedroom matched that of Nicole Brown Simpson. The prosecution, the defense and Judge Lance Ito said the story, reported by KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, was wrong. KNBC initially responded by saying that it had "reported accurately the information our sources have told us." Several days later, the station said part of its report was "in some respect, factually incorrect," although it did not specify what was inaccurate.