The truth behind reporters’ sources

One thing the Main Stream Media rightfully gets criticized for is the use of anonymous sources. If you want a better understanding of journalism, here’s an explanation of sourcing.

Illustration: SK Info Techies

Sources are those who provide information to reporters for news stories. If you think about it, most news stories are built on platforms of information provided by sources.

Reporters may initiate stories, but they are dependent on sources to provide data, detail, and fact. 

Sources are frequently the government — information shared by everything from the Census, to the Department of Revenue, to State, Defense, HUD, Education, and so on. In addition to the government, reporters receive information from think tanks, industry groups, political organizations, universities, scholars, scientists, unions, various experts, and so on. It’s a long list.

None of this information should be accepted without question, but it often is. In most cases, organizations like those I mentioned, or their executives or spokespeople, are willing to be quoted by name. 

Why use these sources? Because reporters are trained to get information from authority, which makes sense (although authority sometimes has reason to shade the truth). 

A source willing to be quoted by name, and thereby willing to face any argument or challenge, is more believable than one that refuses to be identified. 

Back in the ‘50s, most people were willing to be quoted by name, and not just because the media was more highly regarded then. Times were different, simpler.

Starting in the ‘60s, I believe things began to change as a direct result of a loss of trust in government and other institutions. 

That’s when anonymous sources first started cropping up, after many decades of newspapers refusing to use them. Previously, if a reporter came to an editor with a story underpinned by an anonymous source, the editor would say, “Get him to use his name or find someone who will let his name be used.”

That changed over time because more sources became afraid if they spoke on the record, giving their names, they might suffer repercussions ranging from warnings, to firing, to prosecution.

I just used the phrase “on the record.” There’s also “off the record” and “not for attribution” or “on background.”

Here’s what these terms generally mean. 

On the record means the information can be directly quoted, and the name and title of the person providing it can be used.

Off the record means the information can’t be used, it is only for the edification of the person hearing it. Some people — including some journalists — confuse it with

Not for attribution, which means the information can be used, but the person providing it can’t be named. You see this all the time when you read, “A high government official says that….” or “A Department of Revenue spokesman said…”

When government started dropping named sources, during the Richard Nixon era, The New York Times reportedly retaliated by using this: “A State Department official, speaking in a German accent, yesterday said…” The mention of the accent was to identify Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, without using his name, thus obeying the “no name” rule.

On background provides information on a situation for the journalist, who uses the background details to help him or her construct a deeper story in his or her own words.

As mentioned, for a long time newspapers wanted named sources, but eventually accepted unnamed, or anonymous, sources, but demanded at least two.

Now it might be only one, especially if the one person is well placed with a record of reliability.

The promise of anonymity should not be given lightly, although it sometimes is. To me, the promise is negated if the source provides information knowing it is untrue, but it is often hard to figure out if the source was a knowing liar.

Editors sometimes will ask reporters to identify their sources so they can evaluate the credibility of the material. 

At the Philadelphia Daily News, which was never a typical newspaper, my editor asked on rare occasion, “Do you have complete trust in the source?”

On only one occasion did he ask the name of the source, because the topic was explosive. I provided it with the understanding he would share it with no one else.

When questions persist, reporters can fall back on a blind item, more often used by columnists, especially gossip columnists, than by news reporters. In a “blind item,” the subject is not named. Such as, “The star of an NBC series is about to face charges of sexual molestation, say informed sources at the network.” In this example you have a “blind item” provided by anonymous sources.

There have been a handful of reporters who gamed the system, lied to their editors and ran stories that were fiction.

Maybe the most famous was Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning story in 1981 about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. 

It was a lie, she had invented Jimmy, and the Pulitzer was returned. Her editors made the mistake of falling in love with the story and suspended their professional suspicion.

In 1998, the career of The New Republic writer and associate editor Stephen Glass exploded when it was learned that he had fabricated, in whole or part, 27 of the 41 stories that he wrote for the magazine. Editors there, likewise, ignored the adage that stories too good to be true probably are not true.

Another fabulous fraud was Jayson Blair, fired from The New York Times in 2003 when the newspaper discovered Blair had plagiarized a number of his stories from other sources.

Importantly, the violation of journalistic standards were discovered and revealed by other journalists.

Journalism is an occupation where practitioners will happily cast out the bad apples.

Real journalists hate “fake news” even more than you do. 

29 thoughts on “The truth behind reporters’ sources”

  1. Great explanation Stu. What you posted should be required reading for everyone interested in either reading or reporting the news.

  2. Stu – “sources” tell me that your article is, in fact, truthful, and should be further disseminated among many other sources. Thank you again for another great enlightening piece regarding the state of “real fake news.”

  3. From the John Wayne movie ‘Donovan’s Reef,’ this famous line: “No comment– with reservations.”

    Good article, Stu. The major problem with unnamed sources is reputations can be destroyed anonymously.

          1. I was commenting on Stu’s position that some reputations should be destroyed. I find that idea very scary and repugnant. Who should make such a decision, to destroy a reputation? And what if the decision was wrong? As one man whose reputation was destroyed in error said, “Where to I go to get my reputation back?”

          2. Vince, I agree with you on many of your points and I now understand why you made the comment, even though I still disagree with it.

            Do you not agree that there are people who have their good/great reputations based on lies? I believe those are the reputations to which Stu means.

          1. I’ve found that scoundrels have a way of destroying their reputations on their own. E.g., R. Nixon (and all the bad guys who surrounded him); D. Trump (and all the bad guys who surrounded him), among others.

          2. Vince, I agree with you about Nixon, Trump and their associates. I am sure, even though I might not agree with you on some things, I know you are an astute person and you know of people who do/did not deserve their stellar reputations. If there are negative facts which impact on someone those facts need to be brought to light. I am not speaking about rumors or innuendo but cold, hard facts.

    Are you in the minority of “professional journalists “? In today’s world, the catch phrase is SELL, SELL, & SELL ! If we have to retract, we’ll do so on page 99. Once the words are out, they don’t go away.
    To Vince. Remember some guy getting reamed by the senate when he was nominated for the Supreme Court ? Throw all the mud you want at the man. See what sticks !

    1. No, Tony, that is NOT the way it works in professional newspapers. Stories ARE selected in part by what is of interest to the reader. Also proximity and impact. What are the BEST sellers? Crime, sex, sports. We know that. But…
      How much of that is in Page One on an average day?

  5. Thank you Stu for this very informative piece. I’d like to see more articles of this nature (as well as tv programing) “out there”. With so much “news” bombarding us 24/7, we must also be informed on how to think critically about what we are reading/viewing. I believe an informed citizenry is one of the most important ways we can heal our nation.

    1. Naomi, you are in good company: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson

  6. Philadelphia, PA

    Dear Stu,

    I’ll go with the quotation from Jefferson just above from Benedict: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” –TJ.

    But recall that this was the guy who insisted on “government by the consent of the governed” and wrote it into the Declaration of Independence.

    I think to add a Madisonian addendum (thinking of the “division of powers”). Both governments and newspapers are better if those running them (politicians, editors, journalists) chiefly compete, fight or struggle with each other and leave the rest of us out of it. All to the good if the journalists keep track of the politicians and each other –judging them good or bad, better or worse. But I have the same sort of skepticism about group-think journalists taking up criticism of the public that I have about “unitary,” top-down government.

    It belongs to my sense of what goes wrong in our fair town, that we have entirely too much of politically established, self-aggrandizing “veto-powers” over the up and coming. Again, why is it exactly that Philadelphia is the “poorest of the 10 largest cities in the country”? Why do so many young people, educated in the colleges and universities of our “Eds. and Meds.” town turn around and leave on graduation?

    I suspect we’d do much better with a gaggle of competing journals and newspapers. Meanwhile, as we know, the newspaper industry is shrinking all around the country. Perhaps that should give us pause for skepticism on the power of journalists and journalism?

    H.G. Callaway

    1. The newspapers decline was started by their rush to put content on the internet for free. In 1994 or maybe 96, I wrote a column predicting doom, and noting the insanity of giving away product. I am very bitter about what those geniuses did.
      As to why college grads leave Philly? No good jobs. IF we had a more business friendly climate, we would have jibs and most grads would stay because Philly is so more affordable than, say, NYC, and we do have a pretty, walkable city with many amenities.

  7. James Cagney fans might enjoy this terrific song and dance routine, “Off the Record” from the 1942 movie ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Cagney plays George M. Cohan playing FDR talking to a gaggle of reporters. Priceless.

    1. I happen to have a copy of that movie on my DVR. Until it glitches. I am a fan of Cagney because he attended my high school (among other reasons). I doubt the movie can be shown on broadcast TV because of the song/dance number in blackface. I love the staging of the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” number.

    The “balance” of power. Be it the 4th estate or city politicians. A very rare commodity. Why is that ? Is it our greed?, ego?, vanity ?
    As most of you know. Philly was the hub for higher education. It was also the center of the insurance world. What happened ?Probably, same as above. Why pay high dollars when we can move out of state or even out of the country.
    Somehow, that affects the quality of life, and journalism, and medical colleges and just about everything else.
    To Naomi. There are plenty of news channels on cable. One America, Newsmax to name two. You can even get your news in a language of your choice. It’s all there for a fee.

  9. “Nobody reads newspapers anymore”.
    It’s a comment that I’ve heard for decades, typically because of my habit of reading multiple
    newspapers on any given day.
    Yes, I get news from TV, radio and the internet as well, but if I want depth, I need an ink-stained
    source as well.
    Back in the day (1970s-80s) the “Philadelphia Inquirer” prided itself on strict journalistic values,
    and its many Pulitzers. Nowadays, it prides itself on “Money-saving coupons!”.

    I’m certainly not against saving money, but that shouldn’t be the focus of a major paper in a major city.

    Recently, “The Inquirer” op-ed page has had to resort to explaining (every day!), the difference between a straight news story and a column, and defining an op-ed piece.

    Back in the last century, I was literally taught how to read a newspaper, and how to differentiate
    news from opinion and/or speculation.
    As a sometime journalist, the need for the “Inquirer’s” daily explanation just breaks my heart.

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