October 08, 2010
You Ain't Seen Me, Right?
In the wake of the outing of Grog, there's been a bit of chat about the principles of anonymous sourcing. As usual, this debate is framed by the mythology that commercial media journalists have the job of informing their readers and viewers, rather than to provide the content that attracts the kind of people their customers want to advertise to. Fairly obviously, keeping the actual business model in sight makes the real world behaviour of journalists much more explicable than in the comforting fairy story about fact-hungry newshounds, and leads us back to recognising that the Australian's lack of interest in Grog's anonymity is hypocritical when contrasted with their concern for preserving the anonymity of their sources, and the two are not distinguishable by the importance of the latter.
It is not surprising that the declared ethical rules with regard to anonymous sourcing are so often ignored; the value of the source's anonymity to both the source and the journalist is too great. Before we start, though, let's draw a line between genuine whistle-blowers and dissenters facing significant sanction for leaking information to the press, and the self-serving individuals not facing such sanctions who make up the bulk of people you'll find the media granting the boon of anonymity. Journalists stressing the importance of protecting their sources tend to be careful to avoid making the distinction. The origin of the legitimate concern both a whistleblower and the relevant journalist will have to preserve the whistleblower's anonymity is obvious; the problem is that those who face a meaningful risk from exposure make up a tiny fraction of the anonymous sources you'll see cited in mainstream journalism.
So who are the more usual anonymous sources? Generalising slightly you have two basic types: there's the anonymous government official or corporate flack who provides information in agreement with a position already taken publicly by his superiors (think of Judith Miller's sources from Dick Cheney's office whose anonymous briefings validating the claims made by the Bush administration to justify their war could be used as independent verification of those claims, as Cheney himself did on one occasion on Meet the Press with no comment issuing from Ms Miller as to why the apparent verification was spurious), and then there's the political player pursuing a strategy of massaging press coverage in a way that will further his career, say, by whispering about party room dissatisfaction with the current leader to his favourite spear-carrier in the commentariat.
These people crave anonymity for only two possible reasons: they don't want to be publicly associated with a lie, and they don't want the public to be able to assess the credibility of the information being provided by knowing its source. That's the sum of their motivation, and journalists must be able to recognise that, at the least, a request for anonymity in these cases is prima facie evidence that the information provided will not be true and that maintaining anonymity gives the information credibility it does not deserve.
Now, journalists have an obvious incentive to acquiesce: if they refuse to pass on the information anonymously, the leaker will just go and whisper to someone else. The journalist will lose access to the source, probably permanently, and be left nothing of use to help fill those yawning blank spaces between the ads. Of course, if the point of journalism was to be accurate and informative, that motivation would make no sense, as what use is maintaining access to a source of falsehoods? But under the "providing audiences to advertisers" business model, accuracy, like relevance, is a very low priority.
That said, what's often forgotten is the other motivation journalists have to act to protect the anonymity of their source: the protection of the news values of the story itself. "Man on VP's Staff Confirms VP's Story" is not news; "Anonymous Intelligence Sources Back Up Administration Claims" is. "Leadership Aspirant Bad Mouths Current Leader" isn't much of a story either; well, he would, wouldn't he? "Leaks Allege Party Room Rebellion" is the story you want, much better than the alternative above or the even more accurate possibility "Politician and Pet Journo Meet for Lunch." It's almost never mentioned, but the desire to create news where none would otherwise exist is probably the most compelling motive journalists have to allow their informants to stay in the shadows.
Back before The National Enquirer became a slightly sleazier version of People magazine, swapping its alien abduction and cryptozoology stories for more mainstream chaff about the illicit affairs and pregnancies of celebrities, and the occasional "political story", the rather odd phrase the current editor uses to describe illicit affair and pregnancy stories about celebrities who happen to be politicians, it was an established joke that the Enquirer's fantasies were, in fact, technically true, because they never printed, say, "a woman gave birth to Elvis's clone after being impregnated by Reticulan Greys" without adding the qualifier "claimed Brandine Clontarf of Fugue, Idaho". Which, if you'll forgive the windy set-up, made the Enquirer a more accurate news source than pretty much anything in what we call the mainstream media because at least their sources weren't anonymous.