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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

US media frowns on anonymous sources

When the founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, calls the time-tested practice of anonymous sources an "evil of journalism," what does it mean? Well, for Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, it could mean jail time. For investigative reporters, it could mean greater difficulties in uncovering the truth. And for potential scandal-breaking sources, it could mean that they'll keep their mouth shut if their anonymity can not be protected. The combination of the stain left on reporting by the likes of Jayson Blair, who falsified stories while working for the New York Times, and the recent disclosure of the anonymous source, Deep Throat, the government insider who helped direct the Watergate investigation, bring new light to this old debate. Sure, nobody wants to hear of journalists conjuring up sources to fit their story, as happened with Blair. But nobody (aside from a few top official who will remain, well, anonymous), wants to restrict the job of the Fourth Estate in digging up information that the public should know. So where do we draw the line?

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism thinks that the sudden movement against anonymous sources stems from "an attempt to tighten, to eliminate a looseness that's developed over the last 20 years," and is not designed to "make it difficult to do investigative reporting." Eric Burns of Fox News Watch thinks that this has to do with the decline in trust of journalists by the public and between fellow journalists since the Watergate days. Maybe these assumptions are true, but there remain no industry-wide guidelines concerning the use of anonymous whistle-blowers. USA Today requires that its managing editors be privy to the identity of the unnamed source before an article is published. Most local papers don't even allow anonymous sources, according to a survey done by the Associated Press. During the Watergate reporting, anonymous sources were permitted, but suspected criminal activity had to be confirmed by two alternative sources before being made public. Now, Burns feels that "What is likely to happen... is that (reporters will) have to use more than one anonymous source before they're comfortable."

Should guidelines be set? Who's to write them? How will they be reinforced? Will we ever see investigative journalists able to uncover Watergate caliber scandals again? What do you think?

Whatever happens, Ms. Miller, who's being forced to disclose her anonymous sources by US Federal Courts, said she would rather spend the 18 months in jail than contradict the promise she made to those sources.

Sources: The New York Times and Fox News

ps. Editor & Publisher has let it be known that the Sacramento Bee has been unable to find 43 'people' quoted by Diana Griego Erwin, a columnist who resigned on May 11 under speculation of fabricated sources. With problems such as these, regaining public trust is only going to become harder.

Posted by john burke on June 28, 2005 at 04:14 PM in m. Improving editorial quality, o. Ethics and Press Freedom | Permalink

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