Boston Herald business editor Greg Gatlin leaps onto the Herald’s Messenger Blog in order to whack the Phoenix’s Adam Reilly. Gatlin’s upset that Reilly allowed an anonymous “astute Boston observer” to call the Herald “basically irrelevant” in his article this week about the Herald and its new/old editor, Kevin Convey.
Reilly responds that Gatlin may be right — that “the source’s anonymity should have made me think twice about using such a damning line.”
Media Nation’s take: Reilly’s in a tough position. A journalist should not, except under very unusual circumstances, use anonymous sources to attack people or organizations. It’s a basic rule of the craft, and it’s one I reminded my students of last week.
And yet. Writing from experience as the Phoenix’s media critic from 1994 through 2005, I can tell you that if you follow that rule too strictly when covering the notoriously insular, paranoid press, you’ll rarely get a quote that’s either candid or memorable. This is not like covering politics — people can lose their jobs if they tell you what they really mean and attach their names to it. Or, in the case of the “astute Boston observer,” he or she may fear retribution in the pages of the Herald.
I still remember one occasion when I allowed an anonymous source to deliver a rather stinging rebuke to his news organization. Within days, this same source said exactly the opposite — on the record — to another newspaper. I can assure you that he was being candid with me and dissembling to the other paper.
If Reilly erred here, it was perhaps in not characterizing his anonymous source sufficiently enough for readers to get a feel for where the “irrelevant” quote was coming from.