M&G playing political games with anonymous sources?

The ruling African National Congress reacted (as usual?) to a Mail & Guardian newspaper report on 3 September last year. At the time, too, I though there was something amiss about the said report but its editor, Nic Dawes, had a different take on the issue.

The report 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 Cape, Mbalula’s supporters and Mbeki’s supporters.

Unfortunately, it was 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. And I find this strange but as you can tell, the editor doesn’t see anything wrong with that and instead said there were lots of on record comment in that piece too. This after I told him on Twitter that I enjoyed the newspaper’s Friday edition but was “disappointed at the pg2 story that… extensively relied on sources and not even ANC’s Jackson Mthembu” was approached for comment. And maybe, as The New York Times newspaper Public Editor Clark Hoyt said about readers like myself, I just happen to hate anonymous sources because (I) cannot judge the sources credibility for (myself). Really?

Hoyt, quoting Bill Keller, former executive editor, and Allan Siegal, former The standards editor of the NYT, said anonymous sources should only be granted as a last resort to get information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable.

In this M&G report and taking into account the above statement was there no way the report could have gone for print/for press had the reporters not sought these sources quoted extensively and lengthy in the report and even without having bothered to seek official comments from the spokesperson(s) of the ruling party and those of its alliance partners? Rubbish. This is because the way I see it comments were just never sought by the reporters in the first place.

Hoyt said a policy (I am not sure if that’s all newspaper policies on sources) requires that at least one editor know the identity of every source. And here I would like to believe that Dawes knows the identity of the sources. But in disagreeing with the Dawes who said there were lots of on record comments in the article Hoyt said: “anonymous sources cannot be used when on-the-record sources are readily available. They must have direct knowledge of the information they are imparting; they cannot use the cloak of anonymity for personal or partisan attack; they cannot be used for trivial comment or to make an unremarkable comment seem more important than it is”.

In a study that Hoyt conducted there were concerns raised over the use of sources because not only does its usage bother readers like myself but that some editors were also worried and were trying to fix this, in reference to the NTY, though. He said the common but uninformative explanation that sources could not be named was because they are not authorized to discuss the matter.

And in the ANC’s case, Mthembu and others were there for such an authorization, but why weren’t they consulted or approached for comment? 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”. Sadly in the M&G report the readers (myself to be precise) were not told as much as possible about why the sources could not be identified and how they came to knowing much of what they know. 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? This is because even the ANC denied this and said this can only be seen as extreme levels of gutter journalism by the newspaper fuelled by a political motive that is guaranteed to meet its waterloo at the NGC of the ANC.

Even the Washington Post newspaper Ombudsman Andrew Alexander complained for decades about his paper’s unwillingness to follow its own lofty standards on anonymous sources. Alexander said readers who care about the quality of their newspaper’s journalism like I do that of the Mail & Guardian will persistently object to anonymity they see as excessive and incessant.

The problem was endemic, said Alexander, and reporters (of the M&G too) should be blamed but then again the solution must come in the form of unrelenting enforcement by editors, starting with those at the top. So, is that you Nic? Or maybe not?

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 said, if the media keeps going at the rate at which they are going about these unnecessary sources and without being give reasons as to why they want to remain just that, we may have brought this animosity and negativity from politicians onto ourselves and we might as well injure being called “media dogs”.

By the way, and as my blog disclaimer, I am a Media Freak. I read, learn and write about media and politics all the time and other issues too, of course and to some people, my writings may be seen as bias but there are not, okay.

What I am trying to say is what former Avusa Media Public Editor Thabo Leshilo said when he said that we should at all the time approach anonymity with caution.

This is an amended article that was first published here on 6 September 2010.

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