Those who report and study news generally agree that anonymous attribution, while sometimes problematic, is a vital part of hard-hitting, public-affairs journalism. If the pages of American newspapers did not contain at least some veiled sourcing, important stories most certainly would go unreported, as sources would go silent for fear of professional and even personal repercussions. Journalists, in short, sometimes must grant anonymity in order to gather volatile or politically charged information. If publishers and editors stripped reporters of this professional license, vital news sources would disappear, having little to gain and a lot to lose. From the standpoint of media ethics, then, journalists sometimes can achieve a greater good by granting anonymity than by refusing to grant it and possibly allowing potentially abusive behavior to occur without accountability.
Unfortunately, even the most prestigious news organizations sometimes get burned by anonymous attribution. Jayson Blair, who brought veiled sourcing-and pure fiction writing under the guise of news-to the forefront in 2003, abused his position as a reporter by writing phony stories. In addition to ruining his own journalistic career and contributing to the professional demise of top editors at The New York Times, he damaged the reputation of the newspaper itself. Historically, those associated with the Times have taken great pride in working for the nations "newspaper of record," but the Blair debacle offered everyone there a hearty slice of humble pie, especially when Blair said he found the entire situation humorous and liked to laugh at the editors responsible for reviewing his audacious fabrications. Not since Janet Cooke, or perhaps Peter Arnett, has one journalist received so much professional scorn, forcing even his own alma mater, the University of Maryland, to address the subject in American Journalism Review. On an even broader scale, it forced proponents of affirmative action to defend their views on hiring practices, with the entire episode exacerbating racial tensions.
But while it often takes a high-profile case such as this for news audiences to consider more closely the information they generally take for granted, the reality is that newspapers and television news outlets use the veil of anonymity every day; they simply do so in a more subtle fashion. Take, for two examples, the manner in which journalists (operating under deadline pressure and the desire to scoop the competition) frequently construct sentences, and how they decide on whom they rely for the information that goes into their news reports.
While sentences that begin with phrases such as "It was thought that . . ." and "There were expectations that . . ." have long been a part of journalistic storytelling, they can imply the presence of a source and a source's assertion when neither exists apart from the brain of the journalist writing the article. Subsequent reports then may treat these "thoughts" and "expectations" as facts-and eventually a series of stories based on a false premise may follow to the point where serious inaccuracies and embarrassments occur.
For example, the sentence, "It was anticipated that an administration official would comment today about failed intelligence regarding uranium" sounds harmless and somewhat routine. But it may prove troublesome for the administration (if not the news outlet) when no one actually makes the anticipated statement (which may never have existed in the first place). It may prove especially embarrassing if journalists then begin to question why no one made the anticipated statement about an issue that, in this case, may have helped lead to the war in Iraq.
Fundamental news writing texts encourage students to use active verbs in news reports, partly because passive verbs tend to obscure the person who initiates an action. But all too often professional journalists ask readers and viewers to place an unreasonable amount of faith in their reporting, the kind of reporting that columnist James Kilpatrick termed "trust-me" journalism. I believe that Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, had it right when he suggested that excessive use of anonymous attribution causes news sources to report more information than they can possibly know or verify, thus leading journalists to report more information than they can know or verify. The practice renders both the source and the veracity of the information itself suspect.
A related problem occurs when the anonymous attribution "officials said" is used in support of an assertion. A common occurrence here is the presence of one "official" somewhere in the article, despite the plural attribution "officials said" toward the end of several paragraphs. Readers might infer that a group of policymakers have made collective assertions about an issue, thereby giving it added weight and credibility as a news item; but in fact the assertion may have come from one person with marginal credentials for comment. While one cannot create absolute attribution rules for journalists operating in a politically volatile world, the potential for abuse with unchecked anonymous sourcing is high, as Jayson Blair demonstrated. The problems may become even more severe when audiences receive a news product that could have originated as a press release from one partisan "official." The ubiquitous presence of "officials said" attribution smacks of carelessness and fails to hold accountable those who make assertions reported in the press. In the most basic sense, such attributions have become synonymous with "Surely, someone said it." Someone indeed may have said it, but that someone may have intended only to float a trial balloon or to attack another person without being identified.
In their Pulitzer-prize winning Watergate coverage, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein initiated the practice of requiring that a second source corroborate any assertions made by any other source before the information was included in one of their stories in the Washington Post. Even though the reporters frequently had to offer anonymity to their sources, they demanded corroboration from a second person in order to protect themselves and the paper in its coverage of the political story of the century.
Today, though, such corroboration is largely forgotten as a practice. Getting the story first, and thereby increasing ratings and/or selling more newspapers, is antagonistic to double- and even triple-checking of allegations before publication, as there will always be loose cannons like Matt Drudge willing to grant anonymity to virtually anyone who has a salacious bit of gossip to peddle.
One risk embedded in such a practice is the almost total autonomy granted reporters by editors, who want the story published as quickly as possible. How many times, for example, did United States military forces likely kill or injure Saddam Hussein in the recent war in Iraq, "according to sources at the Pentagon"? Rumors seem to dominate the news more and more, with handlers for Arnold Schwarzenegger commenting on why the actor would not run for governor in California-right to the point where Schwarzenegger said he would. "Sources said" Colin Powell had hinted that he would not serve a second term as Secretary of State-right to the point where Powell dispelled these assertions.
Clearly, a balance must be struck between immediacy and accuracy, especially in the age of the Internet. The Dallas Morning News had to retract an entire article from its on-line site during the Clinton presidency, and other outlets, even The New York Times, will need to follow suit unless they take more care with the stories they report. The language journalists use in reporting news to the public can make all the difference when it comes to the inferences that readers and viewers draw. Even under deadline pressure, journalists can flip passive verbs to active, and they also can end fewer paragraphs with "officials said," when only one person offered comment-If they are so inclined. Holding journalists and their sources more accountable may alleviate at least some of the problems stemming from dubious news sources and baseless allegations.
NOTE: Readers of this article who wonder whether phrases such as "sources said" can be avoided will find the Boston Globe's "Standards for Ethics and Accuracy" particularly pertinent.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 16,37.