Absence of malice?

By Christopher Harper

After repeated examples of lousy journalism under cover of anonymous sources, it’s time to remove them from the reporter’s toolbox.

Here are some examples of false stories that came to you, the reader or viewer, as a result of anonymous sources:

The New York Times and Judith Miller’s allegations that Saddam Hussein had vast caches of weapons of mass destruction

–The Rolling Stone “investigation” of rape on college campuses

–A New York Times story claiming that federal prosecutors were seeking a criminal investigation against Hillary Clinton for her private email accounts

–A CNN story that Congress was investigating a Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials

–A Washington Post story that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electrical grid

–An MSNBC report that Russian billionaires with ties to Vladimir Putin had co-signed a bank loan for President Trump

In these and many other cases, the prime motivation to use anonymous sources is because the reporter wanted the allegations to be true.

I worked in Washington, where I found the default is usually to promise anonymity because it usually serves the reporter and the source. At the end of the daily news cycle, it doesn’t matter whether the story was true. What counted was the number of eyeballs attracted to the story!

In a discussion on the recent Atlantic claims about Trump and the military, some of my former colleagues in journalism offered Watergate as the underlying justification for anonymous sources.

That was almost 50 years ago! For every good example of what has happened because of anonymous sources, how many bad examples have happened? It took me only a few minutes to recall the fake stories I listed at the top. Give me a few hours, and I’d come up with a basketful.

Oh, how about Dan Rather and Memogate? Maybe Little Jimmy and Janet Cook?

Moreover, news organizations rarely follow their guidelines on the use of anonymous sources. In most ethical codes, a reporter should ONLY use an unnamed source as a last resort. A senior editor usually has to approve the use, and a second source must corroborate the information.

I’ve served as an expert witness in half a dozen lawsuits where reporters and editors didn’t come close to following these guidelines and libeled innocent people.

I recommend that journalists watch Absence of Malice, the 1981 film that analyzes how the use of anonymous sources results in the death of one woman, the disgrace of local and federal prosecutors, and the end of a journalist’s career.

And I didn’t even have to mention the growing disbelief of the public toward journalists as a result of anonymous sources and other miscues.

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