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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Off the Record, Media Has Problem With Unnamed Sources , Says Christian Science Monitor

Christian Science Monitor reporter Randy Dotinga has an excellent take-out on the perils and plusses of journalists relying on anonymous sources, such as the one that Newsweek trusted for its Periscope item about U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushing a Koran.

The use of anonymous sources has so gotten out of hand, Dontina notes, that even The New York Times' story on the mess Newsweek got itself into used two unnamed sources, including an "outside Bush advisor" and an "administration official."

Dotinga's money quote is this: "If you play the anonymous source game, sooner or later you'll get burned," says Tim Porter, a Mill Valley, Calif., newspaper consultant. "I don't know how many more times the American press is going to put its hand on that stove before they say, 'It's hot, don't touch it.' "

Porter is a well-respected journalist who is also a blogger. You can read his superb "ink-stained kvetches" about the media here on his blog, First Draft.

The Monitor piece also quotes University of Maryland Journalism Professor Christopher Hanson's thoughts on the topic and a perhaps not entirely tonque in cheek suggestion:
"To critics, those types of descriptions shed little light. Christopher Hanson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, jokes that newspapers should take a step toward clarity by using icons to identify the motivations of sources - a balloon for a 'trial balloon,' a knife for a case of backstabbing, and a blowfish for a person trying to puff up the reputation of his boss."

Hanson adds that his bottom line is to use anonymous sources only "it's an issue of absolute vital importance to the public and there's no other way to get the information." That is the traditional MSM view, by the way.

For the rest of the Doninga piece, go here.