From AJR, July/August 1998 issue
Who Do You Trust?
Deciding whether to pick up an explosive story based on anonymous sources from another news organization can be a vexing problem for newspapers and television news operations.
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (email@example.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
B ACK IN JANUARY IT WAS A NIGHTLY DILEMMA in the nation's newsrooms.
Here was yet another explosive story about the president and the intern from the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, or a wire summary of the latest bombshell from Newsweek.
It was compelling, perhaps salacious and maybe even important. But the information was all attributed to those ubiquitous anonymous sources, in some cases a single unnamed source. What's a wire editor to do? How do news organizations decide whether to use high-impact stories when they have little if any knowledge of who the sources are or how solid the information is?
It's a challenge newsrooms face all the time, not just at the height of the Lewinsky season. And there is no clear-cut answer. The irony is that many news outlets have strict rules governing the use of anonymous sources in their own stories--if they use them at all--but allow more leeway in granting the go-ahead to other organizations' pieces, particularly those from Washington, D.C.
``I think for the most part we have a higher set of standards in terms of the use of anonymous sources than we do with wire stories," says Robert Vucic, executive news editor at the Harrisburg Patriot-News (circulation 98,000) in Pennsylvania. ``Quite frankly, I think we're just at the mercy of the wire services, as are a lot of newspapers."
In particular, Vucic says, big national and international stories with anonymous sources are almost impossible for his paper to verify, and he feels it's a risky decision to run them. But the Patriot-News, like most other news outlets, sometimes gambles.
Editors have come to accept a certain level of anonymity in stories out of D.C. Chris Lavin, assistant managing editor/world at the St. Petersburg Times (circ. 340,000), acknowledges that in Washington ``things happen in a way that almost force you to report on material not always attributed to a named source."
But that doesn't translate into carte blanche for Washington news. And during and after the anonymously sourced wire overload otherwise known as Monicagate, policies on what to publish and what not to, and the trust commonly placed in big name news organizations, were called into question.
Jerry Roberts, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (circ. 490,000), says in this saga with ``almost unanimously anonymous sources" it was vital to pick one news source to trust and stay with it, instead of editing together wire reports. The tricky job of choosing to run or not to run got trickier. ``As an editor of a regional newspaper you're suddenly just confronted with this avalanche of information.... You'd be a fool to ignore it and not put it in the newspaper." But, he says, the question of credibility loomed large. ``You have to sort it out in a way I don't remember there being three or four years ago."
The benefit of the Lewinsky story, says Frank Sesno, senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of CNN, was that it instigated tighter guidelines in picking up other news outlets' pieces.
Greg Victor, international editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (circ. 245,000), cites the Dallas Morning News' incorrect report that a Secret Service agent would testify to witnessing Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising situation as an instance when his paper was burned--and a reminder to proceed with caution. The Post-Gazette did limit its pick-up to a small reference within a large story and tacked on the qualifier that no one else had reported the information.
Regardless, a warning call had been sounded. As Thad Ogburn, news editor at Raleigh's News & Observer (circ. 156,000), says, ``Seeing Dallas happen probably caused all of us to pull back a little bit.... In a lot of cases, probably, we're all being a little more careful now."
R ECEIVING SECONDHAND INFORMATION on a big, big story like this makes deciding whether to run an article troublesome. Most of the wire reports come at night. There's not a lot of time to think about them, and when it seems like every other news source has grabbed hold, how can you be left behind?
``We're just flooded with anonymous reports," says Charles Harpster, wire editor at the Des Moines Register (circ. 165,000). ``I listen to NPR in the morning, and they might have one. Then I turn on CNN, and they might have one.... And you think, `God, this has to be true, everyone has it.' " Despite this mass reportage, he says he tries not to be swayed, looking closely at the nature of the sources and the credibility of the news organization in each instance.
The originating news outlet is, in most cases, the key factor. Lavin, like many other editors, cites the big three--the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times--as having track records worth betting on. The Tulsa World's (circ. 153,000) senior editor and columnist, Alex Adwan, agrees, placing heavy faith in the big dailies' commitment to getting it right. ``We have no reason to question their judgment on these matters.... We don't consider them infallible, but we know their judgment is honest," he says.
Editors look to past experiences to weigh the value they place on reports from these papers, with the Associated Press often thrown into the mix.
John Harvey, a senior editor at Portland's Oregonian (circ. 354,000), says the number one factor to consider ``would be the service that sends it, with the Associated Press and the New York Times at the top."
At Maryland's Frederick News Post (circ. 45,000), mostly AP stories are used. ``If the wire moves it, we run it," says Managing Editor Michael Powell. And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's (circ. 291,000) Don Walker gives kudos to the AP as well. ``The AP really, really tries to avoid using anonymous sources, and for that reason, we do pay particular attention to their version of the story," says the senior editor/enterprise.
Others compare and contrast. Lavin in St. Petersburg follows the performance of other news organizations on stories his paper isn't covering, looking critically at what's in the Post and the two Times and then checking out papers in cities like Chicago, Dallas and Seattle.
``If the New York Times had it, the Washington Post had it, the Los Angeles Times had it, we felt pretty safe," says the News & Observer's Ogburn of decisions involving Lewinsky coverage. Ogburn puts the big three ahead of AP mainly because he recognizes and trusts the bylines--another factor in gauging a story's merit.
Reporters and editors on the national desk in Pittsburgh will watch bylines, taking note of who reports what, says the Post-Gazette's Victor. ``If somebody had noticed that a particular reporter...has gotten something wrong a few times, we might flag it."
Despite a fairly high level of confidence in solid reporting and generally high ethics of the major dailies, editors don't simply shovel their stories into print or onto the air. ``We do give the wires more license," says Alec Dobson, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's national editor, ``but we don't turn off our skepticism either." It's a delicate process, with subject matter, relevance to readers, a local angle, identification of sources and plain old gut feeling playing into the decision making.
NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley sums up the case-by-case process: ``You carefully examine the story, try to take some measure of the level of sourcing, factor in the record of the publication in question, and go with your best judgment."
The Oregonian's Harvey looks for a label for the unnamed source and avoids those with axes to grind. He says the New York Times very often will tell what camp a source is associated with, making a particular name less important and lending the piece more credibility.
Victor agrees. His questions: Does the source seem respectable? And does the story have news value for readers?
But sometimes the final call hinges on instinct, a sort of sixth sense. ``A lot of it is a gut level judgment," says Martha Malan, senior editor nation/world at the St. Paul Pioneer Press (circ. 203,000). ``There are times when unidentified sources in the New York Times are not sufficient because it just doesn't feel important enough or credible enough."
Some news organizations go proactive, calling the reporter or editor with questions, initiating original reporting or editing the copy. Gilbert Bailon, vice president and executive editor of the Dallas Morning News (circ. 517,000), says the paper will often call the originating outlet, ``not expecting them to tell us the source but to get more information or the context."
A BC NEWS MAINTAINS GUIDELINES. ``We don't put anything on our air that we haven't been able to confirm with two sources for ourselves," says Washington Bureau Chief Robin Sproul. That said, she allows, ABC will sometimes broadcast another outlet's story with a so-and-so-reports credit.
NBC's Wheatley says reporters are asked to match or add to a story, but ``sometimes they are able to do that; sometimes they're not.... Every case is a little different."
Closely scrutinizing the Lewinsky coverage, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which will also call a news organization with major questions, noticed some inaccuracies and started making corrections. Says Victor, ``You would find writers drifting into `Lewinsky's allegations against Clinton' " while Lewinsky has never come forward with her own claims. ``We had somebody almost on duty to try to clean those nuances up.... We feel we can do some minor editing of stories," he says.
CNN takes a ``dual key approach," says Sesno, by which two senior news executives must clear a sensitive story to air. ``This allows us to take stock of the story, make sure we've done our own editorial footwork on it and slow the process down a little bit." The 24-hour news channel's own reporting, he says, has caused it to hold back on reports from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and even the network's sister publication, Time magazine.
Compiling ``from wire reports" articles and contacting Washington bureaus for guidance and perspective function as decision tools as well. But many editors say tight time constraints prohibit fact-checking or tracking down reporters. With most big stories breaking late at night, ``the decision is made in a pretty short time frame.... I think if we have enough doubts that we want to call the reporter, we probably won't run it," says Larry Eichel, national editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer (circ. 425,000), which passed up the Washington Post's initial Clinton/Lewinsky piece because of unnamed sources and the severity of the allegations. The Oregonian's Harvey says his paper will not do any original reporting on such pieces. And Harpster in Des Moines says, ``I would either accept or reject a story. I wouldn't hold and try to verify it in some way."
Afternoon papers or evening broadcasts have an advantage. NBC Nightly News Producer Bob Windrem, the self-described ``coordinator for all things Monica," says that by the time the news airs ``for us, very often it's 18 to 20 hours to match, to add to, to advance" the story. But no matter how comfortable the decision to run feels, credibility is on the line. And though the safe bets far outnumber the horror stories, any retraction for something the news outlet couldn't confirm is one too many.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found itself backing away from a claim it published from the Washington Post, again during the Lewinsky fanfare. The Post ran a front page story about a Secret Service agent, Lewis Fox, who lives in the Pittsburgh area, saying he witnessed Clinton and Lewinsky alone. The Post's sources also said Clinton had denied in a deposition that he had ever been alone with her. The Post-Gazette talked to Fox and gave the story the go-ahead. In the ensuing weeks, Fox said he wasn't positive--maybe they weren't alone. Then the Post published the actual deposition in which Clinton said he may well have been alone with Lewinsky. Victor says the paper just didn't ask Fox enough questions and trusted unnamed sources. The paper explained the new information to readers. ``We tried to follow up anything after that," he says. ``We tried to back out of that story in a very clear way."
After this misstep, is Victor now more skeptical of the Post? He hesitates and allows ``a little bit," without much conviction, adding, ``We kind of watch over time."
Bill Snead, deputy editor at the Journal-World (circ. 20,000) in Lawrence, Kansas, and a former Washington Post photographer, is more leery. Snead, who says he's very reluctant to run anything with anonymous sources unless it's a huge story, believes in the integrity of the Times and the Post, but warns against giving them the green light too often. ``I'm much more aware when I'm listening to public radio or listening to the news, and they say, `the Washington Post said today,' or `the New York Times said today,' as if it's the last anointment you can get."
Looming deadlines and fewer resources leave many news organizations with, as Harrisburg's Vucic says, ``largely no control." Couple that with what Harvey calls a ``new era" in journalism in which two sources are not always required and ``now they take what Deep Throat said and put it in the newspaper," and the risk is increased.
Even with added caution, the respect editors attach to papers like the big three doesn't seem to be waning.
``We all rely on the rigor of operations like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times to keep the standards very high," says St. Petersburg's Lavin. ``They do."
Joe Worley, executive editor of the Tulsa World, says that on occasion a mistake may slip in, but if a news source is unreliable, a pattern will emerge. ``Very frankly, despite what some of the public might think about the use of sources, most of the mainline media has been very responsible," he says. Does he have any qualms because of the recent surge of anonymity? Without pause he answers, ``None whatsoever."