Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Outsourcing

7

In a column that explored controversy around the “White Sox think Toronto Blue Jays are cheaters” ESPN story, Bruce Dowbiggin explains his newspaper’s policy on the use of anonymous sources:

So what is the journalistic standard for anonymous sources? Policies vary in the industry, but here at The Globe and Mail, while anonymous sources are considered less than ideal, they are permitted. When an important story cannot be obtained without protecting a source who risks retribution if identified, then anonymous sources are permitted. The use of unnamed sources is not the purview of the writer, however; the paper itself makes the determination when to guard the source’s identity.

That’s the journalistic standard? That’s it? That’s no standard at all because it does not address the probems with anonymous sources.

The most important criteria is that the story must be credible. This is the biggest problem with the ESPN story. The claims made by the White Sox were not believable. If the writer does not believe that he is getting the straight goods from his source, there is no story.

The reader can’t assess the credibility of the source. The reader doesn’t know whether the source has an axe to grind. The reader doesn’t know whether the source is in a position to know anything. The reader doesn’t know whether the source is blowing a whistle on an organization or whether the source is leaking part of a story on behalf of the organization.

The writer knows all these things because the writer knows the source. The writer surely must assess the credibility and only submit the story if the source passes the smell test. If the Globe publishes a story based on anonymous sources, the Globe had better be happy to stand behind it. If Brian Burke lies on the record, the Globe is not responsible for the accuracy of their report. If Burke lies off the record, the Globe is entirely to blame if the result is an inaccurate story. Unnamed baseball players claim the Blue Jays are cheating? ESPN is also making that claim if they publish the story.

Somebody has to be responsible and accountable for an anonymous quote or claim. If the source cannot go public because of a fear or retribution, then the reporter should become responsible for the truth of whatever is being peddled. If the story turns out to be wrong, the source should be outed or the reporter should be fired.

We wish.

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Comments

7 Responses to “Outsourcing”
  1. Magicpie says:

    If the story turns out to be wrong, the source should be outed or the reporter should be fired.

    If you fired a reporter every time he got a story wrong you’d run out of reporters pretty quick.

    Besides that I think that Dowbiggin deserves the benefit of a doubt on this. That quote doesn’t seem like it’s intended to be an all-encompassing summary of the paper’s policy on anonymous sources. All he’s saying is that the paper’s willing to use anonymous sources if necessary, and that the decision for doing so rests with the editors. That doesn’t necessarily imply that they ignore anonymous sources’ credibility or that reporters aren’t held responsible for what they bring in.

    I’d actually be willing to bet that Dowbiggin and his editors at the Globe probably agree with everything you said about the newspaper being responsible for what it prints from anonymous sources, and that if Dowbiggin backs a story from an anonymous source that turns out to be wrong, he’s going to catch some flack for it internally.

    • Gerald says:

      If you fired a reporter every time he got a story wrong you’d run out of reporters pretty quick.

      Not really. What you WOULD get is reporters who were a lot more careful with their writing than the unadulterated claptrap that passes for journalism all too often (not just in sports journalism, either).

      A little more journalistic care might bring back a little more readership trust that has been lost in recent years.

  2. Tom says:

    Besides that I think that Dowbiggin deserves the benefit of a doubt on this. That quote doesn’t seem like it’s intended to be an all-encompassing summary of the paper’s policy on anonymous sources.

    Except that Dowbiggin said that the ESPN story fit the policy even though it was not credible unless ESPN looked at some film and found the mysterious man in white. Instead ESPN printed the story with some bogus statistical analysis that implied the story might be accurate. That was okay, according to Dowbiggin presumably because it was an important story and because the White Sox had some reason to stay off the record.

  3. Bingotough says:

    “Somebody has to be responsible and accountable for an anonymous quote or claim”

    Somebody does pay, although not in a short-term, tangible way. Over time, the brand and reputation of the writers and the paper suffers. Rarely do reporters get fired for sloppy journalism, but the paper gets less readers, lower advertising revenue and eventually the newspaper will downsize.

    Even on the Internet where content is free, I rarely read sports stories on the Province or the V.Sun websites due to the pedestrian, predictable and mind-numbingly poor quality of their stories. Look at Ecklund & HockeyBuzz. His/their reputation is mud and will almost certainly never scrape it off the floor.

    • Tom says:

      Somebody does pay, although not in a short-term, tangible way. Over time, the brand and reputation of the writers and the paper suffers. Rarely do reporters get fired for sloppy journalism, but the paper gets less readers, lower advertising revenue and eventually the newspaper will downsize.

      Perhaps so, but not necessarily. (More on that in a second.) I’ll be satisfied – more than satisfied because it ain’t going to happen – if the reporter understood that when he (or she) quotes an anonymous source, he is vouching for the information. That he is saying, “I have assessed this claim and this source and I believe the story he is telling.”

      In a perfect world, the market would operate the way you suggest, but it ain’t perfect. I think hockey coverage – all sports, really, – has been sliding towards the seedier side for a years. There is a healthy market for all those tabloids at the supermarket checkout. Entertainment news is mostly gossip and it sells. A lot of people will defend Eklund with, “I like rumours!”

      Both Vancouver papers devoted huge amounts of space and resources to hockey last season. I think the reason for the devotion is that hockey stories – however yellow the journalism – drove circulation up. The more, the better. Nothing was too inane. Inane was good. It sold.

      In other words, gossip may outsell good journalism in this market. I think that’s what’s driving the deterioration in the coverage.

      • Bingotough says:

        I agree wholeheartedly Tom that gossip may outsell good journalism and may even drive up circulation. The rub is that its easier to get into the gossip game (see Eklund) and with a lower barrier to entry comes an associated race to the bottom when it comes to price.

        Here in the UK, rubbish journalism is so prevalent that papers like the Evening Standard are now given away. The product isn’t valued and people will not pay for their product. Things still end up in the same place: brand erosion, reduced revenue and ultimately unemployed journalists. It just takes a while to get there.

      • James Mirtle says:

        Web traffic seems to bear that out, too, Tom.

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