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Anonymous Attackers and Clueless Reporters

"That may require that editor to personally meet the source, 'look him or her in the eye, and get a feel for the conviction of the source and the depth of knowledge.'"
--Haiman, Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists, pages 17-28

As I began reading the chapter about anonymous sources, I have to confess I had some reservations. While it is important to ensure that people can't just throw out false information under the protection of being anonymous, I think it's also important that you don't go to the other extreme as well--discourage anonymous sources so much that people who may have legitimate reasons to keep their identity secret can't get important information to the public. After all, where would be if we didn't have Deep Throat? You understand I'm talking about the informant in the Watergate scandal, and not something else. You just have to strike a balance; the system can be abused either way. It's equally important to discourage people from feeling like they can just throw out any ridiculous accusation because they can say they want to remain anonymous. Once again, I was amazed at how many people on the panel seemed to have personal experience with anonymous accusations--"I've been speared by anonymous sources in the paper several times and it's the most helpless feeling, but what can you do?" What kind of people did they interview for this survey? I don't think I'm remotely connected to any situation in which anonymous sources accused someone of something; I don't think it's that common of an experience. Once again, I have the suspicion that the people they gathered for this panel have more direct experience with dealing with the press than the average person. I feel like this may have colored their feedback in a negative way.
The second chapter in this section seemed to address a more universal problem readers might have--reporters who don't really understand the subject they're covering. Most people have studied something in-depth that is reported on from time to time, and it can be painful when you see it being misrepresented. I know I have issues with articles that are written on theatre all the time. And my experiences writing news in this class have led me to understand the other side of things; it can be very difficult to get a firm grasp on a subject you've had very little or no exposure to. When attending two speeches at the Holocaust Conference, there were times when I found it a little hard to follow the speaker because they used such specific references. For instance, Michael Berenbaum referred to an incident with a Bishop Williamson and didn't really explain it, and most people in the audience seemed to understand it. There's a lot of background research you have to do, which is hard when you're trying to play catchup with experts in their field who have been studying the subject for years.

Comments (2)

Dianna Griffin:

Matt, I like how you used Deep Throat as an example here. I don't really think people realize the importance of an anonymous source. Yes, I would want to know who someone was if they were saying negative things about me, but if they're going to hide behind their anonymity then it's not valid anyways.

Matt Henderson:

But what I'm saying is that I think anonymity needs to be respected at least somewhat in order for people to feel safe enough to come forward with certain accusations they would not feel comfortable making if their identity was known. For example, in our investigative pieces, there may be people who have valid information who don't want to be mentioned by name. Should we immediately write them off because they're anonymous? What if they're the only people who have the information we need? It's just a tricky balancing act between protecting people from just hurling random accusations and protecting people who have reasonable concerns about the consequences of being named as a source in an investigative report.

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