When should “sources” be used?

I have had it with newspapers that have often and almost on a continuous basis used “anonymous sources” or people “who asked not to be named” and “insiders” and of course “those close to [the subject of the article at that time]”.

These, unfortunately, are used even when an official comment has been received by the journalist(s) concerned. Of course I understand that there may always, if not sometimes, be certain views different to the ‘official’ comments that have to be taken into account.

But that does not mean that the used of “sources” should be so used in such a ways that one even wonders why the “official’ comment was sought in the first place as the story would then be flooded by “sources” than “official” comment or comments from people to speak “on authority” of a particular organisation that by be subject of the report/story concerned at that time.

And even when one can use “sources” here and there, I have often found that these sources have been so over used to the extent that I have even wondered if they exist at all or if they were not just made up. This not because I do not trust and believe the information reported on at that time by that particular publication, but it is because the overuse thereof is so irritating that it is even questionable.

Sadly it is not only South African newspapers – Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times newspaper that I have had a problem with its overuse of anonymous “sources” a couple of times that I have since approached the editors of the two publications – but other newspapers, The Guardian, New York Times and other international publications have also fell prey to this overuse of “anonymous sources” that now former Public Editor of The Washington Post newspaper, Andrew Alexander, has even criticised the newspaper.

In last column at the newspaper as it Public Editor/Ombudsman, Alexander wrote that he had received thousands of email since his two-year term at the paper. Alexander said the most worrying and “dominant theme” has been the newspaper’s “journalistic quality has declined”. “It’s a view I share,” said Alexander.

Alexander said he had faced many challenges at the time some of which included, amongst, other: riddled typos, grammatical mistakes and intolerable “small” factual errors that erode credibility. Local news coverage, once robust, has withered. He further said: “The excessive use of anonymous sources has expanded into blogs. The once-broken system for publishing corrections has been repaired, but corrections often still take too long to appear”.

As newspaper Ombudsman, Alexander – one who wondered of readers were aware if the “ombudsman operates under a contract that guarantees total independence” and that he reported to “no one” – asked what the “excessive use of anonymous sources’ and other challenges would have on the “level of quality [of The Post and other publications]?”

A while back I criticised the Sunday Times for its “excessive use of anonymous sources” after I called the report “crap”. And it was this word that resulted in my complaint to the publication’s Public Editor, Thabo Leshilo not getting attention at all because of the tone of my langue. I have since apologised for my used of that word.

At the time of my complaint, I also sent the same letter to the South African Press Ombudsman (which never responded) and the paper’s Editor, Ray Hartley, who also never bothered to respond. Instead, Leshilo said I would not be getting “any feedback” from him as he “could not read beyond the first paragraph of [my] missive because of the crudeness of [my] language”. As a “matter of principle, said Leshilo, he did not “entertain [read ‘carp’] insults.”

Also a while back – and as noted by the African National Congress – I came across a report in the Mail & Guardian newspaper which I believed there was something wrong with it. When I asked the newspaper editor Nic Dawes, he seemed to differ with my opinion (or insinuation) at the time.

In the report the newspaper lengthy quoted many “several ANC sources”, “Zuma lobbyists”, “ANC insider(s)”, “government official(s) with strong ANC links”, “ANC-aligned government official(s)”, “former ANC leaders in the Western Cap”, “Mbalula’s supporters” and “Mbeki supporters”.

It was unfortunately on only ANC member Billy Masetlha who was quoted in the report, not even ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, ANCYL’s Floyd Shivambu or any of the ruling party’s alliances’ spokesperson were approached for comment by the reporters.

I found this to be quite unfair and strange, but as you can now tell, the editor did not see anything wrong with the said report and instead said there were “lots of on record comment in that piece too”. This was after I told him on Twitter that I had enjoyed the newspaper’s Friday edition but was “disappointed at the page 2 story that… extensively relied on sources and that not even ANC’s Jackson Mthembu” was approached for comment.

The New York Times newspaper Public Editor Clark Hoyt spoke of readers like myself that we happen to “hate anonymous sources because (we) cannot judge the sources’ credibility for (ourselves)”. Apparently, said Hoyt quoting the then Bill Keller, the executive editor, and Allan Siegal, then the standards editor of the NYT newspaper as saying, anonymous sources should only be granted “as a last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable”.

In a study conducted by Hoyt himself, there were concerns raised over the use of sources because not only does their usage bother readers like myself but that some editors were also worried and were trying to fix this, in reference to the NTY. Hoyt said the ‘common but uninformative explanation’ that sources could not be named was because they were “not authorized to discuss the matter.” And in the ANC’s case, Mthembu and others were there for such an “authorization” and why weren’t they consulted or approached for comment in the first place? This failure, unfortunately, creates the impression that sources are lazily used. Therefore, said Hoyt: “it is so critically important that anonymous sources not be used lazily or out of habit, and why, when they really are necessary, readers need to be told as much as possible about why the sources can’t be identified and how they know what they know.”

For the M&G report, this much – readers (myself to be precise) being told as much as possible about why the sources could not be identified and how they came to knowing much of what they know – was nonexistent.

Or could the newspaper have allowed reporters’ “personal or partisan attacks (being shielded) from behind a mask of anonymity”, something Hoyt warned the New York Times newspaper against previously?

This is because even the ANC denied this report, saying it could only be seen as “extreme levels of gutter journalism” on the part of the newspaper that is “fuelled by a political motive that is guaranteed to meet its waterloo at the NGC of the ANC”.

Even Alexander complained for decades about the paper’s “unwillingness to follow its own lofty standards on anonymous sources.” He said readers who cared about the quality of their newspaper’s journalism – like I do that of the Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times – will “persistently object to anonymity they see as excessive and incessant.” The problem was “endemic”, said Alexander, and that “reporters (of the M&G and Sunday Times maybe?) should be blamed” but then again said that “the solution must come in the form of unrelenting enforcement by editors, starting with those at the top.”

And not that I condone the politicians’ behaviour towards journalists or anything like that because they are only doing their job but I think – and like Helga Jansen once said and that if media keeps going at the rate at which they now are going – we may have brought this (press and media freedom resentment from politicians hence the now proposed information bill and the media appeals tribunals in South Africa onto ourselves and we might as well injure being called “media dogs” as M&G Politics reporter, Mmanaledi Mataboge once said.

I was further shocked to find out today in a stinky journalism report today that Leshilo said he had “no intention of indulging [me on my] vulgar blog”. He also told the web site that he had not received any complaint from President Mugabe or his representatives or any reader about the story you’re referring to and don’t see the point of responding to me, or any other for that matter.

But as Alexander said we, readers, “also play a critical role, demanding the best journalism”. And yes, I may be a Media Freak or junkie that reads, learns and writes about media and politics, as reads my blog disclaimer, but like Leshilo, I think newspapers – online or print – should “approach anonymity with caution”.

So, when is it right to use sources, how many sources can an article quote?

This, I am afraid, is a very serious matter (for me) and I am sure it has bothered other Media Matters lovers.

Let the debate begin…

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One thought on “When should “sources” be used?

  1. True, the overuse of ‘sources’ does have the potential to kill the credibility of a story and we the general public should question these sources. I think a guideline should be that where sources are quoted, credible evidence of their claims should be availed. It won’t always be possible true, but that should be a guiding factor.

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