February 29, 2004

Anonymous Sources vs. Anonymous Commenters: How they are similar and why they should be rare

Anonymous speech is a critical part of online and offline communication. All you need think about is Watergate, and Deep Throat, an anonymous source known only to

    four people on the planet ... Woodward; his partner, Carl Bernstein; Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post; and of course, Deep Throat himself

that brought down Richard Nixon. There are numerous reasons why journalists must keep the identity of a source of important information secret, and there are many reasons why I want to allow anonymous comments on my blog to be made. But at the same time, overuse, to hide, to harass, to advance ideas manipulatively, without scrutiny of the purveyor of those ideas and their motivations, is corrosive to the marketplace of ideas, our discussions across communities and for the democracy. The gold standard for objectivity in media is under scrutiny, and as Ken Auletta recently said, it may not be objectivity that is key, but fairness. And this fairness goes both ways, with the reporting, but also for readers who, in evaluating a story should know who said what and where they come from. This is a kind of fairness too. After all, there is no view from nowhere; each person's view should be scrutinized along with their words. Big media has huge power and huge responsibility to use these sources rarely and only in very important circumstances. Otherwise, they become shill's for these manipulators who keep insisting they need anonymity, and lose the credibility that is their professional currency.

On February 25, the newsroom at the NYTimes got a memo from Bill Keller about Confidential Sources. It is not as broad as the policy they put online on the same day and mentioned today by Dan Okrent (in what could be a blog, as it's online, with links, and is written in semi-blog style -- a new blend for the Times of online and offline communication, though not with comments, they leave that to their forums).

The Keller memo on the new policy does say that 16 news organizations including NYT, "The Washington Post, The AP, and The Chicago Tribune, as well as the president and four other board member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors" signed this policy, which says that writers and editors should "resist granting sources anonymity except as a last resort", and then if done, the reason will be stated in the story, and "a supervising editor must know the source's identity." The policy admits that "in some cases, it may be impossible to use the information they [confidential sources] provide" and the "costs of following a rigorous sourcing policy will be far outweighed by the trust it builds with our readership."

The other day, Dan Gillmor wrote his column about issues of credibility with online anonymous speech and why communication on the internet is degraded when people try to fool readers about who is speaking, where they come from, or refuse to stand behind their words. It's something that came up on bIPlog, where a commenter used different false names there, on Dan's blog, and at some other blogs, to imply that different people were speaking, when in fact none of the names were real and they were all one person. Dan and I have been talking about this issue since last Fall, off and on, trying to figure out ways to keep speech open, but still foster support for accountable speech. Amy Harmon's article about Amazon's glitch revealed more on the topic of online communication and the manipulation of readers perceptions. Amazon temporarily revealed the real identities of book reviewers, where sometimes authors had written their own or good friend's reviews. This has caused people to see those reviews as untrustworthy.

It seems as though both online anonymous communicators as well as anonymous sources should be highlighted in some way so that readers know the source is anonymous and unverified. Readers do want to view information originating from someone over time to evaluate that person and this should be supported so that people are encouraged to stand behind their words, though I am well aware that if something like this occured, people would attempt to game the system. However, in circumstances like Amazon's system, where they control the review process with a one day delay before putting up a review, they could also require that people with verified accounts post under their real name. There would still be ways to game things somewhat but it would cut down considerably on their book review problem. Open internet communication is another story, and at this point really impossible and undesirable to force people to communicate a certain way, including using a real name. But certainly, writers of blogs could devise someway to highlight anonymous communication that at least might make anonymous words more explicit.

At the request of a professor at UCB (who is a NYTimes reporter), I compared AP and NYTimes articles, before and after the announced policy on Feb 25th. Below is what I came up with, however, since the publicly available policy is effective March 1 at the NYTimes, we will need to evaluate again after the change to see the effects.

Search: anonymous or anonymity (removed any cites that were not about anon sources but that used these words)
Date range pre-policy: Feb 14 to Feb 25, 2004
NYTimes.com results: 995 articles
AP results from WDC Post with AP only selected: 540 (many of these are reposted articles, with either no alterations or altered slightly, so the same articles show up numerous times, and I'm not sure how to count them and don't have the time to really get it right, so I won't try to characterize what the real number is, but I'd guess at maybe 200?)

Date range post policy: Feb 26 and 27
NYTimes.com results: 9
AP results: 15 (counted each article once, regardless of changes)

Note: the AP search was done on the WashingtonPost.com site, where AP can be isolated in the advanced search function.

Examples from the NYTimes (The new NYT policy on sources, which is very cool in terms of transparency and commitment to using anonymous sources judiciously says, "The rules are effective on March 1, 2004, and will become part of a revised Integrity Statement to be issued in the coming months."):

Bank Works to Improve Its Image in Canada By BERNARD SIMON Published: February 27, 2004

    The aggressive approach initially paid off. David Kassie, Mr. Hunkin's successor at CIBC World Markets, "should be credited with accomplishing quite a bit," said a former colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Why is this person anonymous? This is a compliment. Surely someone could compliment David Kassie on the record.

Oscar Mudslinging: It's So-o-o Last Year, By SHARON WAXMAN February 27, 2004

    Meanwhile, Universal has been spending millions to promote its best-picture nominee, "Seabiscuit," though even within the studio few think the movie has a chance to win. Instead, one senior Universal executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity, the spending was "a good investment in a relationship" with the writer and director Gary Ross and the producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.

Again, why is this person anonymous?

Meeting Local Needs in a Presidential Primary, By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ Published: February 27, 2004

    (About Hillary Clinton) "It's a no-win situation for her," said one New York Democrat on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "No matter what she does, people are going to think she is doing it to advance her own position. So she is better off staying under the radar until a clear front-runner emerges."

And this person? This isn't exactly a, "crucial issue of law or national security in which sources face dire consequences if exposed...."

Official Says DNA and Alibis Clear Man Held in Sex Attacks By ROBERT D. McFADDEN February 27, 2004

    The official, a member of the prosecutor's staff who requested anonymity because charges in the Upper East Side cases had not yet been dismissed in court, disclosed that Mr. White had been cleared by DNA evidence in one case and by substantiated alibis in the other three in order to alert residents of the area that the attacker was still at large.

This case I can understand a little more, where the court hasn't yet issued the dismissal of the case, but it would seem that someone who attended the hearings could substantiate that the evidence was presented and seemed credible, and therefore, because of the alibis, would be cleared.

AP (not subject to the above referenced NYT policies, but a signer of the agreement to use anonymous sources more judiciously, however I haven't been able to find anything on their site about this other than here last updated in 1995: News sources should be disclosed unless there is a clear reason not to do so. When it is necessary to protect the confidentiality of a source, the reason should be explained.):

Study: 4,392 Priests Accused of Sex Abuse By RACHEL ZOLL The Associated Press Friday, February 27, 2004; 7:28 AM

    The studies - commissioned by America's bishops - found that 80 percent of the alleged victims were male and that just over half said they were between ages 11 and 14 when they were assaulted, a source who read the reports told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The Catholic Church has a history of hiding and these studies are supposed to make the sexual abuse situation more transparent, and the reporter is using anonymous sources to corroborate this.

Supermarkets, Grocery Clerks Reach Deal By ALEX VEIGA The Associated Press Friday, February 27, 2004; 4:06 AM

    LOS ANGELES (AP) - Grocery clerks and three supermarket chains reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday that could bring an end to the longest grocery strike in U.S. history and send 70,000 cash-strapped employees back to work. Greg Denier, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, as well as a source close to the supermarket chains who spoke on condition of anonymity, said an agreement had been reached. The source later characterized it as a handshake agreement; no terms were disclosed.

Does the supermarket chain have a spokesperson? Why does this person need to be anonymous? There should be some reason why they was necessary.

Bush Spends $3.6M to Run Ads on Cable TV By LIZ SIDOTI The Associated Press February 26, 2004

    It requested ad rates on broadcast stations in 17 states, but is likely to buy network airtime in 14 to 16 of them, according to a Bush-Cheney source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Of the 17 states under consideration, all were competitive in the 2000 presidential race, with the contests being decided by 6 percentage points or fewer.

Okay, we know that team Bush-Cheney is not kind to leakers, but was this an intentional plant of information? A reason about why this is necessary would be good.

Media Wants Names of Martha Stewart Jurors By ERIN McCLAM The Associated Press Thursday, February 26, 2004; 7:45 PM

    Also Thursday, lawyers picked up the judge's draft of legal instructions she will give to the jury. The draft included instructions on all nine charges in the case, a person who saw the document said on condition of anonymity. The judge is considering defense motions urging her to throw out some or all of the counts. She plans to hear additional arguments Friday, when she decides on the final wording of the instructions.

I can understand why this is anonymous, because otherwise we wouldn't likely get the information at all, but where is the explanation that this information is not really supposed to be public in the first place, until the Judge makes it public, and that's why the source is anonymous?

Overall, these uses of anonymous sources were not explained, and seem unnecessary, except in two cases.

Posted by Mary Hodder at February 29, 2004 01:09 PM | TrackBack
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