Raw Story’s Larisa Alexandrovna on Anonymous Sources

Our Washington Press Corpse series continues this week with a brief email interview with Larisa Alexandrovna of Raw Story. Alexandrovna is one of two reporters at Raw Story. The other, John Byre, is also the editor and publisher. Run independently of large news organizations, Raw Story does the kind of investigative journalism that many have been crying out for in the rest of the national press. So far this year, Raw Story has investigated the under-the-table deals of Jack Abramoff, the possible ties of James Guckert/Jeff Gannon to the White House and the Social Security scam letters that indirectly helped fund Tom DeLay's trips to Great Britain and Asia, among other stories.

The questions and answers are provided in full, without comment. Other installments in the series are listed at the end of this post. (Note: The interview was broken into two parts for easier reading. This is part one. [UPDATE: Part two is here.])

Realitique: What challenges do you face in using anonymous sources?

Larisa Alexandrovna: Anonymous sources fall into several categories. There are sources who are aides to top level officials and who simply do not want their name used. There are citizens who want to inform the public, but are afraid for their lives or their jobs. There are top level officials themselves who want to come forward, but don't want to risk their positions. Those are some examples.

There are different types of sources, from all sorts of walks of life and positions of power. They all have different reasons for not wanting their names used. Without them, there are no stories.

There are sources, however, who want to use the journalist as an attack dog against an opponent or for some other less than ethical reason. This last type of source is the one that most journalists worth their salt attempt to stay away from. An example of this type of journalist is Robert Novak and I think we can all safely say "off the record" who the source is.

The challenge is to identify the "planted" sources, of course. The bigger challenge, however, is to identify the ethics of reporting on a particular story vs. the risk for the source(s) and others involved.

In a secretive government one usually does not get many sources willing to go on the record. It is rare for a journalist to find more than one top level source and those sources are usually anonymous for a bevy of reasons.

There is much confusion on what the word "anonymous" means and much of that confusion is fueling the current brouhaha over Newsweek.

An anonymous source is vetted on all counts. Simply put, just because a high level official tells you something, it does not always make it true. Again, this points to the using of journalists for less than ethical means. A journalist will not just say, "Oh, well since you work there, you must know." A source provides information and that information has to be vetted, thoroughly. If possible, it is always a good idea to get a second, third, fourth (etc.) confirmation. But again, in a secretive government, you will rarely be able to get that kind of confirmation and most probably never on the record.

The journalist then must try to independently verify the source's information. If that can be done through documentation, historical patterns, and depending on the story, for example, scientific means, then sometimes the one source is all that is needed.

In other words, Newsweek had more than one source: the initial anonymous source. It had a second source in that the Pentagon was presented with this article and did not "deny," and in many cases that can be seen as confirmation. Newsweek also had documentation from the FBI leaked memos, the past reports of the New York Times, Washington Post, Red Cross and so forth. So the allegations are thoroughly documented. The possible error, and "possible" is still on the table, is that the allegations would now appear in the Southern Command report. That is where Newsweek's source may have erred or may have been pressured to retract. Newsweek simply retracted the Southern Command portion, not the allegations, which, as I have said, have been independently corroborated.

There is also a trust relationship over time that one builds with one's source. If you work with someone for 10 years and they have never failed to provide factual information, it is hard to believe that they would do so "out of the blue."

There used to be and still are many challenges in sourcing, but the biggest one now is to not be on Rove's hit list.

Realitique: Has a source of yours or a coworker ever backed off of information after publication, as happened with the Newsweek story?

Larisa Alexandrovna:I have had a whistleblower source back out six hours after our conversation and several hours prior to publication. That is not nearly as bad as what happened with Newsweek, but you still get the finger-pointing sessions.

Realitique: What protocol(s) do you follow for confirming information given to you by an anonymous source?

Larisa Alexandrovna:It depends on the source, the story, and the impact of the story. I would say that if I can verify the story independently, even if I cannot find a second confirmation, that is enough. This is a very general answer to a very general question.

Realitique: You work for a small independent organization, so these questions might not apply to you the way they do to most reporters, and I don't know if you've worked for other news organizations (have you?). That said, given your experience, what is the relationship between editors and reporters like? editors and publishers?

Larisa Alexandrovna:These questions do apply to me. I have worked for larger organizations, but not in the same capacity. In terms of writing, I have always worked for smaller publications. The best relationships can flourish between editors and their writers. There is a trust level there as well and because of how fragile that is, a friendship tends to blossom. It is like serving in a war together and feeling that you are dependent on one another come hell or high water. The publisher relationship is usually far more complicated as they are more interested in the bottom line, not the story per se. These are generalizations, of course. But I have found them to be applicable in much of my experience.

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions.

UPDATE: Part two of the interview is here.

BONUS: Alexandrovna's interview with former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter (in 3 parts) is here. Her story on Social Security scam letters and the government liaison of the Washington Times foundation is here.

Other Washington Press Corpse Installments (in reverse chronological order):

No comments: