Out of the shadow of 'sources said'
LOS ANGELES — I can think of no common journalistic shortcoming more threatening to media credibility than overreliance on unnamed sources. Polls consistently show that people object to - and are skeptical of - "sources said" stories. Almost invariably, they say, they assume that any quote without a name attached to it was made up by the reporter.
That was indeed the case in several stories written by Jayson Blair, who resigned from The New York Times in May amid disclosures that he was a serial liar and plagiarist. The Blair affair has triggered anew concerns about the use of unnamed sources - and the failure of editors to monitor their use.
But this abusive practice long predates Mr. Blair, and while I don't think most - or many - anonymous quotes are fabricated, I've never understood why editors at even the best newspapers tolerate anonymity so routinely. Of course, some important stories would never be published if the reporter couldn't promise anonymity to a source. Certainly, that was true of Watergate and Vietnam. But not every story is Vietnam or Watergate.
Unfortunately - every day on purely routine stories - too many reporters are too lazy to press their sources to go on the record. Or they get caught up in the game of inside baseball and think they're impressing their editors and readers with their ability to ferret out deep secrets from sources so sensitive that they can't disclose their names.
Many editors like to say they have policies requiring reporters to tell them the identity of any unnamed sources before they'll publish stories based on their statements. But as a practical matter, that doesn't happen very often. "I have asked reporters who their sources are on really dicey stories," says Dean Baquet, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, "but there are so many stories that use unnamed sources that you can't possibly ask for them all."
That's precisely the problem.
A few papers - very few, mostly smaller papers - prohibit or severely limit the use of unnamed sources.
"As a rule, we don't use [anonymous sources] in our local coverage," Jeannine Guttman, editor of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, wrote in a May 18 editor's note, following exposure of the Blair case. "In principle, we firmly believe that the overuse of anonymous news sources causes readers to question the accuracy and authenticity of a news report."
Ms. Guttman didn't say the paper never uses unnamed sources, but that it does so rarely, and only "when it has been determined that there is no other way to report the story, and when the story is of such weight that we are willing to take this extraordinary step."
The policy here at the Times, Mr. Baquet says, is to "try to avoid using unnamed sources. But to report in the real world, you have to use them sometimes."
The media use too many of them, though, and while editors set policy and decide what's published (or not), it's the reporter who conducts the interviews and makes the preliminary decision, in the field, about granting anonymity (or not).
Too many reporters grant anonymity too easily and too often. I know that not only from reading their stories but also as someone who's written about the news media for almost 28 years.
I'm stunned by the number of reporters over the years who've called me and, before we could do more than exchange hellos, have offered me anonymity in exchange for answering their questions. I don't ask for anonymity; they automatically, preemptively offer it - and my experience is all too common.
My answer always is: "I try not to use anonymous sources, so I'm not interested in being one. But I'll be happy to answer your questions on the record."
How can a reporter "try not to use anonymous sources"? When a source asks me if we can "go off the record" - by which most people mean they don't want their names used - I try to persuade him to stay on the record. If that fails, I agree,then conduct the interview, try to figure out before finishing what he's said that's likely to be useful to me, and conclude the interview by saying something like: "Gee, why would you object to having your name on that quote?"
I explain why quoting him wouldn't hurt him. I might even note how insightful or constructive the quote is and why it's important that both it and his name be published. More often than not, my source has agreed, or has asked to modify a word or two before agreeing.
If this approach seems unlikely to work, I usually respond to a source's request for anonymity by saying something like: "OK. But on one condition. When I'm done writing this, if your quote and your name seem really important, I'll call you and read you your quote - and the paragraphs before and after your quotes, so you'll see the context - and I'll explain why it's important that I use your name.
"It will be your decision," I say. "If you say no, I promise to take your name and your quotes out. But you have to promise that you'll take my call and that you'll listen to my arguments."
Many journalists have told me they'd never read a quote back to a source, for fear he'd either deny having said it or ask that his name not be used or that the quote be dropped or watered down. But in using this approach for more than 25 years, I've never had a single source refuse my deal, and only once has a source insisted her name not be used when I called back for my recitation-and-persuasion sonata.
On one other occasion, when I called back a source, he said we could use his name and his quote only if I would agree to eliminate four of the five pejorative phrases he'd used to describe a rival. I said, "Why don't you pick the one pejorative that makes you the most uncomfortable and I'll take it out and use the other four." We compromised on three pejoratives in, two out - with ellipses - and that more than made his and my point.
That's the sum of my "problems" with this approach over all these years.
Yes, it's difficult to do this on a fast-breaking news story, when the reporter barely has time for the first interview, never mind a callback. But a significant number of unnamed sources show up in long-term investigative projects or other stories that aren't deadline-sensitive.
This is especially true in Washington and Hollywood, where asking for - and granting - journalistic anonymity is as routine as telling lies. But it happens everywhere. My all-time favorite in this regard was a Page 1 New York Times story on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani three years ago. The writer quoted someone saying, "The thing that has been very depressing has been the number of anonymous sources professing to know his mind and his heart, and then expressing that knowledge in an anonymous manner."
Who said this? The reporter didn't say. The source was identified only as "one of the mayor's associates."
I'm absolutely convinced that if reporters pressed their sources harder to go on the record - and if editors insisted they do so or lose the quotes altogether - the epidemic of "sources said" and "administration sources said" and similarly egregious constructs would be quickly stamped out, and we'd all be better off.
• David Shaw is the media critic at the Los Angeles Times. ©Los Angeles Times.