One of the bad practices that affects the quality of journalism is the over reliance on anonymous sources for even a simple, straightforward story. This notorious practice is on the rise, undermining the power of journalism, and many journalists do not recognise that it undermines their own standing. More stories today have anonymous sources, where a diligent reporter would have strived to find an attributable source even five years ago. This paper seems to be no exception. How did this practice gain acceptability?
The explanation varies from easy excuses to some practical issues of a lack of transparency within political parties. But no publication has taken a principled stand against the reckless use of anonymous sources. Competitive pressures have made many rules lax, and anonymous sources are an easy way for rather lazy journalism. Reporters must realise that readers deserve more.
It is pertinent here to state my own position on anonymous sources. I consider the use of anonymous sources a very important journalistic privilege, but it should be deployed only when attribution is not possible or may harm the source. It would be useful if all reporters internalise and practise the fine code developed by the U.S. public broadcaster, NPR, on anonymous sources. Among other things, the NPR code stresses that anonymous sources shall be used only to tell important stories that otherwise would go unreported. The code calls for a joint decision in using this device. It says: “This is not a solo decision — the editors and producers of these stories must be satisfied that the source is credible and reliable, and that there is a substantial journalistic justification for using the source’s information without attribution. This requires both deciding whether it is editorially justified to let the person speak anonymously, and being satisfied that this person is who the piece says he is and is in a position to know about what he’s revealing.”
Tamil Nadu reports
Let me restrict myself to the use of anonymous sources in this paper, and study the coverage of a particular event and see whether the level of anonymity in these stories is warranted. There was a surcharged polarising atmosphere this year over the annual Chitra Pournami festival organised by the PMK and its parent organisation, the Vanniyar Sangam. One of the good reports was “PMK men violate Shore Temple sanctity.” It quoted G. Maheshwari, superintending archaeologist, ASI (Chennai Circle) and there was no anonymity in its sourcing. But, many other stories dealing with the fallout did not uphold the same principles.
The story “Dalits lose certificates, valuables in violence unleashed by drunken mob” starts off well. It records the loss incurred by one Narayanasamy and Angalam in the first three paragraphs. Then it resorts to anonymity in its final five paragraphs. Everything is attributed to a resident. The paragraph “The 60 to 70 men who entered the colony were yelling abuses and harassed the women. They also took photographs of the destruction they caused claiming that they had to show it to their leader, the resident said” is a very serious charge, and it cannot be attributed to an unnamed resident. It is difficult to imagine that the said resident would have asked for anonymity over this statement. In the same story, there was a paragraph that gave a glimmer of hope amid the caste violence. “In the Koonimedu Village, another site where there was extensive violence, the Muslims, Vanniars and Dalits joined hands to fight the members of the Vanniar Sangam, the villagers said.” But not attributing it to an identifiable individual, the generalisation did not help to highlight the social contract that kept various sections in this village together during a terribly harrowing time.
In another story, “Youth commits self-immolation, police see no political connection,” the entire attribution is to a generic term “police.” There was no name or designation of the police officer who was quoted. Given the fact that the report seems to be a repudiation of the claim of the PMK that the victim killed himself as a protest against the arrest of its leaders, the anonymity of the officer takes the bite out of the story.
Around the same time, a British couple, Thavaraj and Salaja, were kidnapped and later rescued by the police. On this rescue effort, the city police commissioner himself briefed the press. In this case the reporter missed certain details of the briefing. The report titled “Kidnapped man’s employee behind plot” claimed: “They were taken to Mandharakuppam, a village near Neyveli and held hostage in a house allegedly belonging to a PMK member.” But the reports in other publications quoting the commissioner said that the house belonged to a political activist of a splinter group, Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi.
In this era of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, reporters opting for anonymous sources for routine stories is not a credible option.