A Dicey Business

Another reporter has generously agreed to comment on the Newsweek fiasco. Like Mystery Reporter 1, this mystery reporter works for a southern metropolitan paper and has 10-15 years experience in the industry. Unlike MR1, he has occasionally expressed Republican sympathies, though not so much of late. You may remember him from such posts as "Another Reporter on Gannon Gate." Previous mystery-reporter posts here and here. (As with previous anonymously authored posts about anonymous sourcing, we are raising the Irony Alert Level to Orange.)

Overall, I think Washington reporters rely too much on anonymous sources. I've called Washington and some bureaucrats won't tell you their name without immediate anonymity -- even on basic stuff. Also, I've heard of reporters who too freely grant anonymity. The worst is the backbiting entertainment stories where studio head 1 is savaged [by] three other anonymous studio heads, who must come from one of the five other studios. I think that stuff is just lazy and mostly serves the sources.

In the Newsweek case, relying on an anonymous source may well have been appropriate, but I think the two source minimum rule is a good one that wasn't applied here. Newsweek will probably have to rethink their willingness to rely on one anonymous source, even if it's usually a reliable one. Mike Isikoff, who wrote the item, is a good reporter. He broke the Monica Lewinski scandal and early on it appeared like [that story] really might be a legitimate scandal. I'm sure he did basic due dilligence. And it's not the first report in which Guantanamo detainees allegedly witnessed Koran-debasement. I guess I tend to cut the Newseek folks some slack. They should have found a second source. Additionally, they should have tried harder (assuming they asked at all) for a copy of the actual report where this abuse was supposed to have been mentioned. Also, Isikoff might have pressed his source harder on how he knew about this stuff. Sometimes a couple of extra questions will uncover useful doubts that lead you to better decisions about what to run and what not to run.

From personal experience, I know that anonymous sourcing is a dicey business and you can be manipulated. I subscribe to the Bill Clinton prescription (he was talking about abortion, but hey, it works here too): I want it rare, safe and legal. And while you're at it, mend it, don't end it. And if it doesn't fit, you must acquit. And so on and so on.

Later, in response to a request for clarification, MR2 added:

As far as the studio head stuff, what I'm talking about is how in a story on, say, Harvey Weinstein, the entertainment reporter will quote three unnamed "studio executives" who, under the cloud of anonymity, are free to make lots of scurrilous, ad hominem attacks on poor Harvey. It's basically chickenshit stuff. The anonymity is cover for egos and agenda. If the reporter carefully develops a pattern of serious abuse with a series of complimentary anonymous sources then that's more legitimate to me. That level of effort is found in the The Los Angeles Times stories published in fall 2003 about Arnold Schwarzenegger sexually harassing women on movie sets. They got people to speak on the record and carefully checked their stories to the nth degree. Their accuracy was rewarded when several more women came forward.

Yeah, there was a non-denial, denial quality to the Newsweek reporting. I think what happened is Isikoff didn't probe his source closely enough about how the guy knew what he was saying. Some extra questioning and document requests might have brought out the source's problemmatic knowledge of the topic. That's why two-source confirmation is so much better.

(Link courtesy of Habitat Girl.)

INACTION ALERT: A reporter with experience in Washington has agreed to answer questions. If you have any, please email them to me quick, fast and in a hurry.

BONUS (Rob): While we're on the subject of anonymous sources, here's an Editor & Publisher article on USA Today's 75% reduction in its use of such sources. The article, though brief, at least gives a peek into how the paper decides whether to use anonymous sources. Related article about NYT use in a "major war story" here.

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