| Journalism is a business in which the key purpose is to reveal information. Concealing information, at least public information and information of importance to the public, is an anathema to us. We decry those who conceal or attempt to conceal information from us, hence from our readers and listeners. And that's as it should be.
But as journalists we sometimes inflate one tiny corner of our professional ethic into the very essence of the journalistic relationship. Like medical and legal practitioners, we tend to treat the public as the client and ourselves as the mystical professionals whose knowledge and procedures are beyond the ken of mere mortals.
|© United Feature Syndicate
The tiny corner that we expand unreasonably is protection of sources. We seem to forget our fundamental goal, the revelation of information.
Renata Adler's conclusion in the New York Review of Books (Dec. 9, 1977) on this matter is compelling:
“There should be only rare and well-defined exceptions to the rule that a journalist always reveals his sources; secrecy and journalism are contradictions in terms.”
Attribution has a purpose, after all, and it's not just to get reporters and editors off the hook so that they can respond to complaints by pointing out that it's someone else's fault. Attribution is supposed to help not the author and editors but the reader. It is intended to offer some evidence that will allow the reader to judge whether the information comes from someone who is in a position to know, as well as to show what sort of ax, if any, the informant may be grinding.
Unfortunately, the use of veiled sources has increased rather than decreased in the last several years to the point where most newspapers call the grant of anonymity to the reader's attention through the use of such phrases as “a source who spoke only on the condition that his identity not be revealed.” We seem to think that we're helping the situation by the use of such a phrase. But we are hurting, not helping.
We are telling readers that it doesn't matter to us but that we thought they'd like to know. We are telling them that we conceal identities routinely. By doing so, we are suggesting to them that if they are ever in the position of being interviewed by a reporter, all they have to do is say, “Don't quote me,” and we are honor-bound to respect that wish.
Perhaps even more serious is what we are saying to ourselves and to those about to embark upon careers in the news business. We are saying that sloppiness in attribution is not only acceptable, it's virtually expected.
Look at any newspaper or magazine or listen to any news report:
“Administration sources said tonight that...”
“White House sources said Mr. Bush could name a replacement...”
“Sources close to the president said he planned...”
It happens far too often. And, in most cases, it is merely a mask trying to conceal lazy reporting.
If we are going to publish or broadcast information and protect the source, which should be done rarely and only for established and well-defined reasons, we at the very least should remember the basic purpose of attribution outlined above. “Sources say” just doesn't cut it. All that tells the reader is “We heard somewhere” or “Trust us, we heard it.” That's of no help at all to the reader. In the end, it hurts our credibility. And, in the news business, credibility is the key to survival.
How to identify sources
Here's a rule that seldom fails: Be as specific as possible on the first reference for the attribution.Most often its the person's name along with a title. Sometimes just the title, job responsibility or relationship to the event or person will do and, at times, is best.
For example, if you get information from a well-known source — President Bush, Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx, Chancellor Robert Hemenway, actor Harrison Ford, attorney F. Lee Bailey — the name, of course, is paramount.
But, when that's not the case, get in the person's title quickly. If you have a train wreck, for example, and one of the eyewitnesses is a brakeman on the train, what that person does may be more important than his name. While you need both, stressing what he does adds credibility to your attribution. So, saying “a brakeman on the train, H.R. Muldoon,” is better, perhaps, than saying “H.R. Muldoon, a brakeman on the train.” Even, perhaps, just “a brakeman on the train” would do if you can work in his name later.
At times, if a person's title or job description is not germane, use a description that demonstrates a relationship to the news: Eggly Beggly, who has played golf with the victim for 36 years, said…
If that's not possible, try to use a generic title with no name: An undersecretary of economic affairs.
If that won't wash, try a job description that includes an agency but neither name nor title: A high-ranking official in the State Department.
But do what you can to avoid the vague and, ultimately, meaningless “sources said.”
In the end, it's attribution that gives what we write the credibility it needs. Readers and listeners deserve no less.