By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The problem is the reliance on anonymous sources

On Wednesday afternoon, as the media were having a nervous breakdown over the bombing suspect who was/was not in custody, I received a private message over Twitter from a friend who’s a longtime newspaper reporter:

They were saying they had multiple sources. You know what the problem is, they don’t name their sources. If you had no anonymous sources, then whoever gave them the information would be on the hook. Only in extreme cases do we use anonymous sources!

Leaving aside the obvious fact that this really is an extreme case, my friend is exactly right. Every time there’s a huge breaking news story, it seems, news organizations report developments that turn out to be wrong — and that were based on anonymous law-enforcement sources.

Maybe that could be justified a generation ago, when such leaks were used to develop reliable stories. But now the pressure to publish/broadcast/tweet immediately is so overwhelming that a bombshell from an anonymous source leads not to more reporting but, rather, to an immediate, breathless update.

CNN got most of the attention on Wednesday, and, as a repeat offender, it really ought to be more careful. The Associated Press got it wrong, too, and that matters because editors generally don’t double-check the AP — they’re paying for the service, after all, and the AP is treated as an extension of their own newsrooms.

The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and local TV and radio stations got it wrong, too. The Herald has a useful timeline on page 4 today. I couldn’t find it on the paper’s website, but I’ll add a link if someone has it.

So was the source or sources normally reliable, which is the argument we’re hearing from some of those who got burned? I think that’s the wrong question. It’s the reliance on anonymous sources that’s the problem, not whether those sources were right or wrong. That may be the way it’s always been done. But if Wednesday didn’t prove that there’s something wrong with the old model, then what will?

Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple has a good take on what happened Wednesday, including the full text of the FBI smackdown. At Poynter, Andrew Beaujon and Mallary Jean Tenore put together a Storify that tracks how the initial news and the embarrassing walkback played out on Twitter.

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  1. Another problem is politically ambitious city council presidents who can’t resist blabbing to the press (cough, cough)

  2. Larz Neilson

    Absolutely agree. Sites pop up like dandelions, and many “news” sites have no training in journalism. Some actually take pride in discarding standard practices. And then they copy each other. Source? Oh, I saw it on the web, or I got a Tweet. Chase it back! Where’d you get that? And where did it REALLY come from?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Larz: All true, but that’s not what happened. Experienced reporters were taken in. Did law enforcement deliberately mislead them in the hopes of flushing out a suspect? It’s a question worth answering, but it wouldn’t have happened if journalists refused to play that game.

  3. Patricia Bennett

    Dan, I’m not sure Twitter is the answer as per Mark Little. Lots of mis information also gets picked up on twitter feeds and RT’d, thus spreading more mis information. Yesterday I saw twitter posts regarding activity in Harvard Sq. which also turned out to be false. am curious if you think social media is a solution, or just as gullible as the main news organizations seem to be. Thanks.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Patricia: No, I don’t think Twitter is the answer, for exactly the reasons you say. I just thought Little’s tweet provided some much-needed black humor.

  4. Dan, I’m sort of intrigued by how easily you move from allowing that “this really is an extreme case” to agreeing the use of anonymous sources being the problem. Yes, I do think we are learning every day that we should perhaps be more judicious in the use of anonymous sources. (The fact that someone can, in 30 seconds, Storify your self-contradictory Twitter feed and blast it out to the world certainly should be a chilling prospect.) But I still can’t completely jump on the CNN pig pile here. If you believe what they are telling you, they had three sources, split between federal and local agencies, and presumably ones that had provided them reliable info in the past. If you sit on that type of info in what you acknowledge is an “extreme case,” and the info turns out to be correct, you get whacked on the other side for not being as “nimble” as new media. To use one prominent example, Deadspin gets held up as having “broken” the Manti Te’o story (in part with even more questionable use of anonymous sources, by the way) because more traditional media outlets were checking out the info more methodically. So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s one point. Another is that aren’t we letting the law-enforcement types a bit off the hook by focusing on the media missteps? The FBI publicly chides the media for the “unintended consequences” of premature/inaccurate reporting. If anyone should understand the concept of those unintended consequences, it’s the people under their roof, and the local authorities they are working with. And yet, apparently, there were a number of leaks. So we should reserve at least a little of our dismay for the folks who were so eager, whatever their reasons, to provide that bad info to reporters. And don’t you cringe even a little when you read a seeming condition the FBI would impose on reporting that it be verified “through appropriate official channels”? Sure, you can try doing that. And if a compelling case is made that either your info is wrong or that your reporting will have “unintended consequences,” you listen. But I dunno, I don’t think you’d endorse the media just patiently standing by until the FBI decides it’s ready to call a press conference (and actually go through with holding it).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Kris: So the question becomes, what is officialdom’s motivation for refusing to go on the record? Did the media get used for some as-yet-unrevealed reason? I suspect the answer to that is yes.

  5. Me too, Dan. And that’s where I’ve been having trouble wrapping my head around what the lesson those of us who do this for a living should take away from the way things unfolded yesterday. (Admittedly, I don’t envision having to interact with the FBI any time soon, but I do interact with “authorities.”) I guess we’ve always been charged with having our “B.S. detectors” on, but that’s particularly challenging when the information we are receiving is of the type that people so desperately want to be true (i.e., that this coward/these cowards will be brought to justice), and it isn’t overly apparent why someone would be leading you astray. I don’t know. The last tweet in that Storify references the whole Obamacare Supreme Court ruling fiasco. Understandable, I guess, to the extent it’s CNN in both cases. But it seems like apples and oranges to me. The Obamacare thing was a pure failure of legal literacy/reading comprehension. I was more than happy to join that parade. But this one? Far less clear to me…

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Kris: I’m not singling out CNN. I’m being too idealistic, but I’d be interested in seeing the media push back hard and demanding that officials go on the record.

  6. I wrote that message to Dan in anger yesterday because I was taken in by the false suspect-in-custody story, having heard it on CNN. I then blabbed the false story to my editor. We even posted a link to the AP story. The problem with that false story was it not only gave everyone false hope someone had been caught (and it created a media frenzy), it got everyone thinking that the government might actually have someone in custody, and it might be conspiring to cover its tracks. The bomb threat at the courthouse did not help. In this way, that story eroded our trust in the officials investigating this atrocity. I’m not saying you have to fully attribute big stories or not print them. I understand how the world works, and I also understand the critical First Amendment need to protect sources in the interest of gathering news.
    Dan is more than correct. This is the “extreme case.” However, if a reporter can’t even say “a source within the FBI” or “a source within the Boston Police Department” or “a source close to the city council” then the information is not worth putting out there until it can be confirmed. Is it better to be wrong first, or right last. I would prefer neither, but given a choice, I would rather be right than wrong, safe rather than sorry. Trying to get someone to tell you what is going on “on the record” is the safest way to get the story, instead of letting all your sources spin you in the hope you can confirm the information somewhere else. However, it’s not an easy thing to do.

  7. Peter Sullivan

    Let’s just give the most credit to the news organization that get’s it right… The idea of breaking a story has really gone by the wayside as far as I am concerned. Did Deadspin break the manti t’o story?? who cares… The only people who care who breaks a story are the ones that get beat on it. The rest of us just want accurate news from professional news organizations. And enough with Twitter already….

  8. Al Fiantaca

    “But now the pressure to publish/broadcast/tweet immediately is so overwhelming that a bombshell from an anonymous source leads not to more reporting but, rather, to an immediate, breathless update.”

    How many reporters were using their own, first hand source for this story, and how many were just reacting to someone else’s cite? What are the standards? Is it “One source who I trust” or is verified by a second reliable source before publishing? I’ve heard a number of MSM reporters, in this market, having “It’s not my fault” moments. Well, it is. They chose to use the source in order not to miss out on the story. I’ll be watching for the analysis tomorrow evening on “Beat the Press”..

  9. Mike Benedict

    Richard Jewell.

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