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We’re off the record here, right?

March 11th, 2009 · 7 Comments

Glenn Greenwald has been back on the warpath against journalitic reliance on anonymous or “background” sources. He argues—and this is clearly true—that officials often game reporters by using the shield of anonymity to provide spin without accountability. “Administration sources” can say different things to different people without being called on the inconsistency.  Moreover, “off the record” and “background” are so freely granted that it sometimes seems as though sources just request it by default: There’s little incentive to put your name to even a mildly controversial statement if another reporter will happily put your message out anonymously.

Here’s the problem, though.  Sources request “background” or “off the record” status at the beginning of a conversation—that is, before you know what they’re going to say. Maybe they’re just going to give you spin, and maybe they’re going to tell you something that would get them in hot water with an employer or colleague if it were attributed. When you’ve got a relationship with a source over time, of course, you can start being a bit more demanding with the folks who request anonymity for spin. But in a given instance, you don’t know which it is until you hear what they’ve got to say, which often requires agreeing to a source’s terms—at which point you can’t go back on the agreement if they’re just giving you the party line.

That said, Glenn’s certainly on to something here, and it will probably take a collective decision by reporters to change the status quo.

Addendum: As Kevin O’Reilly notes in the comments, what you can of course do is ask a source who’s giving you the party line “on background” exactly why they need background to feed you spin. And we both know the usual answer: “I’m not an authorized spokesperson…” or “I’m not really supposed to go beyond what’s in our official statement, but…”  Sometimes that’s a legit answer, and sometimes it’s a dodge. In either case, though, perhaps it gets to the heart of the problem. Companies, agencies, and politicians don’t actually catch much crap from the press when they constrain their official mouthpieces to be little more than text-to-speech devices for their press releases, and (nominally, at least — with a wink and a nudge if you’re saying what they want) bar everyone else from going on the record. And they get away with this in part because we all think: “Well, screw it, I can get what I need on background.”  Pressing the background source is going to be futile more often than not: You don’t sign their paychecks, and the easiest thing for them is always going to be to just clam up rather than risk the displeasure of the folks who do.  What we need to do is turn up the heat at the institutional level and call bullshit on the “name, rank, serial number, and press release” rule for official flaks.  Or, with slightly more sophisticated operations, the “how would I know, I just work here” shell game. You know, you have some fairly basic question and, gosh, they’re just not sure, they’ll have to get back to you. And 24 hours later, they do… with the bare minimum of information that could possibly be construed as responsive to your question. Oh, you have a follow-up? You need clarifications?  They’ll have to get back to you. When was your deadline again? Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here there’s not only a collective action problem, but a long-term/short-term problem. What’s in the best interest of The Journalistic Enterprise is to refuse to play the game, run with the official on-the-record statement, and then point out in agonizing detail all the elementary questions they refuse to answer—burning goodwill in the process.   What’s almost always in the best interest of the particular story is to suck it up and take what you get on background.  Perversely, the folks with the most real ability to hold their feet to the fire here—the major dailies they can’t afford to blow off—may also have the least incentive, since they’re also likely to have the best background access.  Still, that’s the pressure point we’re going to have to hit.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 The Usefulness of Anonymous Sources | Newpapers Collected // Mar 11, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    […] Greenwald is, as Julian Sanchez says, back on the warpath. This time he’s blasting the continued use of anyonymous sources and […]

  • 2 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Mar 11, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    You can’t go back on the agreement, but you can ask why in retrospect what they’ve said needs to be off the record or on background, then state that purported reason when attributing the statement. And you can — and depending on the circumstances, perhaps should — challenge the source or try to negotiate with the source to work on some language that they are willing to have their name attached to. But as you point out, there is a collective action problem. And if the culture of the news organization rewards anonymous scoops, even if they turn out with regularity to be wrong, then reporters will go back to the well again and again regardless of what the written policies on attribution may be.

    Jack Shafer’s covered this subject well many times. Search Slate for anonymice.

  • 3 Drasties - Dutch on the World - World on the Dutch // Mar 12, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    […] criticisms I wrote last week of the widespread and baseless grants of anonymity by journalists, Julian Sanchez responds that, while he largely agrees with the objections I raise, it is a more complicated problem than […]

  • 4 Scott // Mar 13, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Turn your damn popup off.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Mar 13, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Huh? What popup?

  • 6 ゴヤール // Jan 20, 2012 at 2:29 am

    nonymous scoops, even if they turn out with regularity to be wrong, then reporters will go back to the well again and again regardless of what the written policies on

  • 7 The Usefulness of Anonymous Sources » Spectator Blogs // Aug 7, 2012 at 8:08 am

    […] Anonymous Sources1 Comment Alex Massie – 11 March 2009 17:42Glenn Greenwald is, as Julian Sanchez says, back on the warpath. This time he’s blasting the continued use of anyonymous sources and […]