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Thursday, July 14, 2005

AP Survey Finds Quarter of Dailies Ban Anonymous Sources; Carolina Journal's Chesser Says They Miss Too Much VIP News About Official Corruption

Associated Press Managing Editors, a professional journalism organization, recently surveyed the nation's daily newspaper editors and found that fully a fourth of them allow no anonymous sources in their reporting.

A lot of people will stand up and cheer that news. Paul Chesser, Associate Editor of Carolina Journal, a conservative online news journal, is not one of those cheering. Noting that most of those editors are from small and mid-size dailies, Chesser explains in The Washington Times today why they do their readers a disservice by refusing to allow reporting based on anonymous sources:

"And if you operate from that standpoint, you rarely get a genuine glimpse of how political leaders exert their power; how bureaucrats are pressured by elected officials; how wealthy business interests win political favors; how government resources are wasted; and so forth.
Witnesses of misbehavior rarely come forth without assurance of anonymity, for fear of their jobs and of their physical well-being.
"So readers of these timid newspapers are left only with nice little community interest stories, and reports on local government meetings based on public testimony. Such content is sometimes useful and entertaining, but it hardly captures the activity that really drives political decisions -- and dishonesty."

Chesser is exactly right. Much of the corruption and abuse that is inherit in government at all levels will never be exposed if journalists aren't allowed to protect the identities of key sources. Of course, it is preferable to get sources on the record, but the reality is that people in government or who otherwise depend upon government largesse such as contractors have good reason to seek anonymity if they know about official corruption or misconduct. Most important, the public has a right to know that information.

There is another aspect of this that Chesser doesn't discuss and that is the impact on the young journalists that dominate the reporting and editing staffs of small and mid-size dailies. If they don't get to learn the proper use of anonymous sources, they will be ill-equipped when doors open for them at larger news outlets, which almost certainly will allow some anonymous sourcing. Again, it's the public which is cheated of news it should know.

What I find especially encouraging about Chesser's piece, however, is that it appears in The Washington Times, the self-proclaimed conservative daily in D.C., and that Chesser is a top editor at one of the best conservative online news journals.

Too often the only media criticism one encounters in publications on the Right (the Times and Carolina Journal being notable exceptions on this point) is aimed at the Liberal Media Establishment - aka the MSM - and it is distressing how much ignorance is sometimes displayed therein of how good journalism is supposed to be practiced.