On anonymous sources

While I was going through my monitoring rounds, a reading of recent reports on the US Presidential elections lead to a commentary in Market Watch from Jon Friedman about a recent article that appeared in the New York Times over Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. According to an area dedicated to the issue in NYT’s very own site, the paper has received “more than 2,000 comments, many of them criticizing the handling of the article.”

The issue put before the Times is one that is always a touchy subject (in my experience and observation) in the field of journalism: ethics, particularly with regard to the “truth” that your story purportedly reveals to the Public.

One of the things drilled into the mind of any journ student is the importance of the quality of one’s sources. Officials and major personalities are always preferred (but sometimes inaccessible, especially during scandals), and specialists almost always act as “talking heads.” A story’s reliability will be judged by the people who back it up, after all.

Which is why I absolutely hate it when a news article is filled with sources that are marked “anonymous.” It is infuriating to someone in media ops because you find it difficult to tailor an appropriate response. How the hell do you debunk “anonymous”? Especially when your client suffers from a credibility gap, the only way you can defend yourself and avoid a “he-said-she-said” scenario is to question the reliability of the source; does the person being quoted have the appropriate access/position/knowledge?

As a PR operative myself, of course I have an… appreciation for the value of “anonymous.” Its so easy to defend it, because you can hit someone so easily, even without proof, while the principle of protecting the sources of a story can be used to screen deeper scrutiny.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer, which some would say is our version of the New York times, claims that it confirms anonymously-sourced information presented to the public as such by checking with no less than three other sources. All of which, most of the time, are also anonymous.

But that’s where the problem lies, in my opinion. Its a given fact that people have biases. The only way to build an effective and constructive argument is to present information in as objective a way as possible, or at least to present sources in such a way that you can have an idea where they’re coming from. Or, at the very least, be sure that the source is reliable.

That’s why the rule, from what I was taught in journ class, is to name the source unless doing so will necessarily imperil the source. I am aware of the arguments on this issue, but part of the what we were taught about journalism is that just as the truth is important, so is fairness. If you rake someone over the coals, or print/show something that could in any way reflect negatively on them, you at least offer that person the right to defend him or herself.

The anonymity of sources removes much fairness in the debate in favor of the media organization because it goes down to one’s word vs. another. Some would say that it isn’t the media org’s fault if the subject has a bad rep, but I say that’s beside the point. What differentiates serious, responsible, empowering journalism from the crassness and sensationalism of tabloid “journalism” is that desire to get to the bottom of something. Of course the public has a right to know; a functional democracy is predicated on the Informed Choice, after all.

But when you come out with a “hit” piece without giving the “mark” the benefit of a fair defense by declaring your information sources as “anonymous” the Truth, in my opinion, gets sidelined. The media org goes from being an agent of democracy to an agent of whatever agenda it espouses. Media then shifts from the already-dubious distinction of “Gatekeeper of Information” to the agenda-setting “Strategic Constituent.” Your media org is not content with presenting information, but tailors it to a desired outcome.

But when you tailor information to achieve a desired outcome, that isn’t journalism anymore. That’s advertising. That’s “issue advocacy.” That’s issue management. There is a clear demarcation between what is journalism and PR, after all.

Of course, Ma’am Doreen (Fernandez) in essence warned us about this early on in journalism class with her simple question on why some newspapers still see print even if they’re losing money for their publishers. As early as the mid-90s, we were already being taught in so many ways that information is power. If something does not exist if it isn’t on TV (so the old media adage goes; the Internet contends this point), then your existence depends on how you’re presented in media.

Anonymous sources trivialize the discussion because little has gone beyond speculation. How do you prove the probity of Mr./Ms. Anonymous? Who is that person in the circle that the “Mark” moves around in? What position does Anonymous hold in the organization in question?

The Filipino, “sino ba siya?”, captures this ambiguity with Anonymous clearly than English could. Isn’t it common in this country that, when we hear information that either scandalizes or outrages us, our first indignant question is “sino ba nagsabi niyan?”

Because there is a need to establish the level of probity of the information you bring to the Public Sphere. Reputations, careers, even lives, are on the line. Certainly media concedes that people who are the target of articles, presented as news, that besmirch or casts aspersions on those persons must be allowed to defend themselves?

An OpEd piece, after all, is automatically regarded as personal views. Even the paper’s EdBoard always points out that the writeups of its OpEd columnists do not necessarily reflect the stand of the publication. You may believe that what your fave columnist is saying is God’s own Gospel, but at least the columnist’s peeve still has a fair chance to defend him or herself. It’s biased information, after all, not objective information. At the very least, the subject of the OpEd piece can claim that the columnist is speaking from a biased point of view.

Yet the whole equation changes when you label information as news. The democratic tradition cloaks information presented as “news” with the aura of truth because the basic assumption is that anything that sees print should be able to defend its veracity. Which is why the word kuryente, or information that cannot be substantiated or proves false, is one of the most hated words in Media, whether by the news orgs or the operators. Like I said above, reputations, careers and even lives are on the line. You have to be able to justify the chance your taking with that person’s life.

Too bad the tradition of questioning the source of information that is standard for our interpersonal relations rarely translates to the Public Sphere. Discourse on major issues would be so much more productive and reforming if we questioned the sources. Sino ba yan, right?

I still grit my teeth when I recall instances like that news report where Cardinal Sin supposedly went against the Vatican’s rule of political non-interference with People Power II. The sources, natch, were anonymous. Highly placed daw in the hierarchy of the Philippine Catholic Church, but God and the journalists only know who those really were. How can you possibly verify if these people were truly in a position to know? You can’t. Because they’re anonymous, and the traditions that protect journalism in this country say the paper has every right to keep it that way.  It cheapend an alread-contentious issue because Erap and his supporters used it to further his case. The intent of the piece was to a not-so-subtle dig at the Bishops, yet look at what happened after.

Will this practice change anytime soon? You wish. Its too effective a tool that costs so little to be junked. Especially since it advances the causes of so many interest groups that our media support- whether out of misguided altruism or something else – against a government that is severely handicapped by its credibility gap.

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2 Responses to On anonymous sources

  1. Eric says:

    kuya rob, kakamis basahin ang napakahaba mong commentary sa mga bagay bagay….

    regular reader ako ng blog… galing galing galing…

  2. Rob' Ramos says:

    Cali!!!!!!!!!!

    Tenchu sa praise ^_^ I try to keep a good level of dissertation (?) in this blog. It’s my “public sphere” blog, after all. The crazy stuff is over at my Multiply account, hehehe…

    Hope your new life there is going great.

    Interesting din diyan eh, hehe. You’re on the front row of history in the making, after all.

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