1. Welcome to SportsJournalists.com, a friendly forum for discussing all things sports and journalism.

    Your voice is missing! You will need to register for a free account to get access to the following site features:
    • Reply to discussions and create your own threads.
    • Access to private conversations with other members.
    • Fewer ads.

    We hope to see you as a part of our community soon!

How do readers perceive anonymous sources?

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Versatile, Feb 21, 2012.

  1. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    I've been chewing over this topic quite a bit for the past few years, really, but it's amplified in recent months. The limitations on anonymous sourcing are pushed back every day, every time another news source is beat on a story it hadn't sourced well enough. When the bosses look bad, the standards tend to adjust themselves.

    It's 4:45 a.m. ET, and the headline on ESPN.com reads, "Sources: Yanks agree to deal with Ibanez." Buster Olney's the reporter. He got the scoop 13 or 14 hours ago. The story hasn't even been updated in 12 hours. The Associated Press has confirmed, using their own anonymous sources, and their story is used to flesh out the report, which is credited to ESPN.com news services.

    Two top competitors -- Yahoo! Sports, Sports Illustrated -- both are running the AP story. Neither uses the word "Source" or even "Report" in the headline. It happened, it would seem. The Yankees added a mediocre left-handed bat to balance Andruw Jones at the DH spot, and no one particularly cared. I have a hard time believing even Yankees fans found this to be all that interesting. But I also noticed ESPN had the story way up in its baseball headlines list, higher than its competitors. And that "Sources" dangles out there, promising something.

    What does it mean? I'm not just referring to that single story. ESPN (along with many others) has been pushing anonymous sources at us for years. It doesn't matter if ESPN is breaking news, confirming a report or even, on occasion, stating the obvious. That "Sources," followed by that colon, has become ESPN's way of indicating something is a big deal. The story is serious enough that someone can't talk on the record about it.

    Does anonymous sourcing actually legitimize reporting in the modern age? The standards have lowered to the degree that many sources simply refuse to talk on the record about anything. Try quoting a scout. We've allowed people to dodge culpability for years, to the point where they've come to expect it. In the process, our readers have come to expect it. That "Sources" line, these days, means insider information. It means Joe Schad or Jeff Goodman or Adrian Wojnarowski has a big story, and it means they got that story through their diligent reporting and trust with sources that others don't have.

    It might be bullshit. It might not be. But I've become convinced over the past couple years that anonymous sources validate a reporter. They establish credentials where they once tore them down. When you've got the big badge of the mainstream media and a few sources that occasionally give you good information, you get the retweets and the credit that never come to those who report on-the-record information. We don't give credit to the reporter who asked the question at the press conference, sure, but we've somehow followed that line of thinking and stopped giving credit to reporters who get people to talk on the record. The culpability of an on-the-record interview goes to the interviewee, not the reporter. The credit follows the culpability. It's only "Buster Olney reports" until it's "Brian Cashman confirms."

    I've rambled quite a bit in this post. But I'm concerned. Good, original reporting is going unnoticed. Dodgy sources are being trusted too often. And stories are gaining more credence and more hits just because they can't be confirmed, which could very well be because the stories are wrong. Think about conference expansion. We were so wrong, so often. Our sources betrayed us. Our sources lied and pretended and made up information. Our sources used us to shift the narratives and drive the other sides to different viewpoints. Without anonymity, they'd be culpable for that kind of behavior. And our hits would go down. No one has an issue stealing someone else's on-the-record quotes, with or without proper attribution.

    Is this where we're headed? Is this where we are?
  2. PressRowsNotSafe

    PressRowsNotSafe New Member

    I might be fishing, but is it worth wondering if social media has played a part in this?

    Before, if athletes wanted (or didn't want to know) what was being said, they could avoid the morning paper or SportsCenter. Now, players from the NBA level all the way to ninth grade are marketing themselves on Twitter, and as part of interacting with people, they're becoming part of the news-making process. Are they, along with perhaps coaches (to a lesser extent), becoming more self-aware as a consequence? Maybe some of the guys that were most willing to go on the record are just breaking the news themselves?

    Of course, it could simply be as you put it: a slippery slope. Anon is always going to be a part of certain stories undoubtedly, but it is suspect with particular stories with seemingly little reason for off the record sources.

    Pretty safe to say these issues aren't going to get any better anytime soon.
  3. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    What percentage of your readers watch Fox News?

    If they can stomach that, then they have no problem with Olney telling them a tabby cat on Fifth Avenue told him about the Yankee signing. The writer is now the source. That's all that is needed.
  4. 1HPGrad

    1HPGrad Member

    You pretty much answered your question, which is quite common at 4:45 a.m.
    I've seen ESPN use 4-6 "Source:" headlines in the right rail several times.
    Source draws attention and is interchangeable with scoop, which is why they keep it rather than switching to "Yanks sign OF who can't hit LHPs (or RHPs)"
    Course, the other possible reason ESPN didn't update it is its editors are spending so much time crafting the next witty Jeremy Lin headline.
  5. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    I don't think twice about anonymous sources when it comes to background information in a story - like scouts in Baseball America or behind-the-scenes people at the Defense Department.

    But I've seen too many anonymously sourced breaking news stories fall apart to much trust them any more. The Theo Epstein-to-the-Cubs story was a clown show, with everybody reporting breathlessly every day that they were the ones who knew that the final details were imminent and an announcement could come as soon as (fill in the blank).
  6. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    Readers should be wary of them.

    Hell, I've seen cases where the coach is the anonymous source of a story about the coach leaving to take another job -- and by the time the paper comes out the coach has changed his mind.

    You can generally tell when a story is pretty solid and when folks are throwing internet rumors out there, though.
  7. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    But do readers even care?

    How many average readers could tell you who broke what first or who was wrong on an issue from three years ago involving a player transaction?

    All they see is OLNEY ESPN it's gotta be true! (Not slighting Olney, but I am just guessing at the way the reader's mind works).

    Dicky Dunn wrote this. It's gotta be true.
  8. BillyT

    BillyT Active Member

    I do not think the average reader really pays any attention to which sources were used.
  9. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    I don't know how many readers care, but the ones that care REALLY care.

    And part of it is subconscious. If you don't think that one botched scoop after another adds up to eroded trust of unsourced stories - Gabrielle Giffords? Les Miles to Michigan? Joe Paterno? - then you are kidding yourself.
  10. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    But the ones that really care cannot support the industry.
  11. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    No, but they raise hell in comments, blogs, cable news, and right- and left-wing talk radio alike. There is a very vocal minority of readers who will not hesitate to tell it on the mountain when we get sloppy with sourcing, and some of them have enormous bully pulpits.

    You don't think that readers notice? You don't think it cuts into our credibility? Go Google "John McCain" and "lobbyist."
  12. I Should Coco

    I Should Coco Well-Known Member

    I'm not sure if readers notice if the sources are named or not.

    But I am ABSOLUTELY sure that 99 percent of readers — print, online, gadgets — don't care who the writer is. Even if it's Mr. Olney.
Draft saved Draft deleted

Share This Page