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Updated: August 23, 2013 15:34 IST

Sources: where to draw crucial lines

A. S. Panneerselvan
Comment (5)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

Nothing helps to push borders and expand possibilities of good journalism than a good debate based on principles and practices. Last month, I raised a number of issues pertaining to overdependence on anonymous sources in news reporting in my column, “When readers deserve more” ( July 1, 2013 ). A live wire reporter, Prashant Jha, has come up with a report, looking at the same issues, from a reporter’s point of view. His article, “The challenges of reporting,” in the Periscope section of this paper explains various systemic limitations.

He was aware of the pitfalls, when he wrote: “Journalism involves cultivating sources, and developing a degree of expertise and background. But in the process, a reporter may become so dependent on particular set of sources, or develop such strong convictions and biases, that he stops being an independent reporter altogether.” Modern journalism is a challenging profession and some of its governing terms themselves need to be unpacked for clarity of both journalists and general readers.

In their path-breaking book, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel help to understand the exact meaning of two major terms that govern good journalism — balance and fairness. They argue that these two terms are not high principles but are “really techniques — devices — to help guide journalists in the development and verification of their accounts.” They caution that balance, for instance, can lead to distortion. “If an overwhelming percentage of scientists, as an example, believe that global warming is a scientific fact, or that some medical treatment is clearly the safest, it is a disservice to citizens and truthfulness to create an impression that the scientific debate is equally split. Unfortunately, all too often, journalistic balance is misconstrued to have this kind of almost mathematical meaning, as if a good story is one that has an equal number of quotes from two sides,” they point out.

They also warn against the idea of making fairness a goal unto itself. They argue: “Fairness should mean that the journalist is being fair to the facts and to a citizen’s understanding of facts. It should not mean, ‘Am I being fair to my sources, so that none of them will be unhappy?’ Nor should it mean that journalist asking, ‘Does my story seem fair?’ These are subjective judgments that may steer the journalist away from the need to do more to verify his or her work.”

Anonymous sources

It is in this context that we must look at the issue of anonymous sources. The international news agency, The Associated Press, has a written code dealing with this often vexatious issue, and drawing from its code will not only be helpful but also build credibility over a period of time. The AP rule says that the material from an anonymous source can be used only if: “The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.”

It further lays down more guidelines: “We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it’s relevant, we must describe the source’s motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible. The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source’s credibility; simply quoting “a source” is not allowed. We should be as descriptive as possible: “according to top White House aides” or “a senior official in the British Foreign Office.” The description of a source must never be altered without consulting the reporter. We must not say that a person declined comment when he or she is already quoted anonymously. And we should not attribute information to anonymous sources when it is obvious or well known. We should just state the information as fact.”

Norman Pearlstine, former editor-in-chief of Time Inc. and a trained lawyer, challenged the conventional wisdom that freedom of the press is an absolute in his book, Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War Over Anonymous Sources. The book deals with the way the media was used by the Bush administration to expose the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative as her husband gave a report that contradicted the administration’s claim that Iraq was trying to buy weapons grade uranium from Niger.

I think it should be made a mandatory read for any journalist who is dealing with official sources because it helps to draw crucial lines before granting anonymity to high officials and administrators. Talking about his journey in writing the book, Pearlstine said: “the journey has been revealing, showing the abuse of anonymity, the incestuous relations between reporters and sources, particularly in Washington, and the far too casual way journalists can imperil their own freedom and even the survival of their publications through the careless granting of promises or through the assumption of promises never explicitly made.” A grim warning which reporters should not take lightly.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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The challenges of reportingAugust 5, 2013

I am of the opinion that unnamed sources shall be used only when absolutely necessary and the information provided is of strong importance to readers. In such cases, every effort must be made to verify the information with other sources. Relying on unnamed sources is a last resort. Any unnamed sources that is used must be approved by supervising faculty, and reporters must divulge the source´s identity to the faculty member so that the source´s credibility can be evaluated.
Any unnamed source must have a compelling reason to insist on anonymity, such as fear of job loss or other reprisal and that reason should always be cited in the story.
Accuracy and responsibility are relatively simple and doable compared to impartiality, fairness and balance. Almost every code for professional journalism places considerable stress on impartiality, emphasising the importance of not taking sides. To achieve impartiality, journalists have to work towards producing balanced stories that include different perspectives. Seeking more than one opinion helps to overcome the appearance of bias or the impression of favouring only one side. But a balanced report must also be fair. A particular news story may give more emphasis or attention to one candidate over another ( I mention that because general elections will take place in Germany in September) because of the significance of that candidate´s words or actions during the event being reported or at that point in time. But to be fair, another story at another time must record the views or actions of opposing candidates. It takes effort to achieve fairness and balance in every story, but it is important to recognise that there are always at least two sides to all events and issues and to strive to make the audience aware of that fact.I think journalists need to be conscious of the fact that there are always grey areas between the main competing interests in any contest or conflict, including elections, and that these need to be reflected in the media if coverage is to be as balanced and fair as possible. For example, the tendency to depend on the social and political elites in a country as sources of news as well as views often results in the concerns and perspectives of ordinary people, which may be quite different, going unrepresented or inadequately represented in the media.

from:  kurt waschnig
Posted on: Aug 12, 2013 at 16:34 IST

Anonymous sources are a source of worry. Reproducing what mouthpieces of communist parties/States like Xinhua is a greater source of worry. Do you think that these mouthpieces carry news that is unbiased? It is more dangerous than the news published by western media. Western media often publish what suits west, but they do carry news that is unpalatable to their governments. Similarly what is published in communist mouthpieces somtimes almost borders on rubbish & we reproduce that rubbish without even thinking. A line should be drawn here.

from:  Balram Rathod
Posted on: Aug 12, 2013 at 16:29 IST

I am of the opinion that unnamed sources shall be used only when absolutely necessary and the information provided is of strong importance to readers. In such cases, every effort must be made to verify the information with other sources. Relying on unnamed sources is a last resort. Any unnamed sources that is used must be approved by supervising faculty, and reporters must divulge the source´s identity to the faculty member so that the source´s credibility can be evaluated.
Any unnamed source must have a compelling reason to insist on anonymity, such as fear of job loss or other reprisal and that reason should always be cited in the story.
Accuracy and responsibility are relatively simple and doable compared to impartiality, fairness and balance. Almost every code for professional journalism places considerable stress on impartiality, emphasising the importance of not taking sides. To achieve impartiality, journalists have to work towards producing balanced stories that include different perspectives. Seeking more than one opinion helps to overcome the appearance of bias or the impression of favouring only one side. But a balanced report must also be fair. A particular news story may give more emphasis or attention to one candidate over another ( I mention that because general elections will take place in Germany in September) because of the significance of that candidate´s words or actions during the event being reported or at that point in time. But to be fair, another story at another time must record the views or actions of opposing candidates. It takes effort to achieve fairness and balance in every story, but it is important to recognise that there are always at least two sides to all events and issues and to strive to make the audience aware of that fact.I think journalists need to be conscious of the fact that there are always grey areas between the main competing interests in any contest or conflict, including elections, and that these need to be reflected in the media if coverage is to be as balanced and fair as possible. For example, the tendency to depend on the social and political elites in a country as sources of news as well as views often results in the concerns and perspectives of ordinary people, which may be quite different, going unrepresented or inadequately represented in the media.

from:  kurt waschnig
Posted on: Aug 12, 2013 at 15:20 IST

Thanks to Hindu for the continous endeavor in upkeeping quality of
journalism while strictly maintaining Freedom of the Press and
keeping away from yellow journalism. That is why The Hindu is
always the trusted news paper. Shri Panneer Selvam has very
appropriately emphasised the limits of reporters and definitely
readers too must keep limit for their expectations.

from:  anilendran menon
Posted on: Aug 12, 2013 at 11:13 IST

Freedom of the press is neither free or absolute. Especially these days with the need
to "sell" copies, news byte,..., Opinions get reported as news. In addition to
Pannerselvans admonitions and suggestion re sources, I would add that one's bias,
and where possible, ones' opinion should be noted.

from:  vijayakumar
Posted on: Aug 12, 2013 at 03:16 IST
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