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A question for the Canadian media on the use of anonymous sources

I was reading the Macleans blog this morning and saw this piece from Scott Feschuk ridiculing the Globe and Mail over a couple different angles on their Budget vote coverage and the Newfoundland Liberals dissent.  I’d like to focus on something that has annoyed me in particular about the Globe and about their use of anonymous Liberals who are using the media – but the Globe in particular – as an outlet to politically attack decision by the Liberal leadership they don’t agree with. It was rampant under Dion’s leadership, and has not gone away with Ignatieff at the helm.

Here’s the example as Scott describes it and his problem with it:

The second person to criticize Ignatieff, in a single anonymous quote, was “one long-time Liberal.” This “long-time Liberal” said, “It looks bad.”(Wow, Long-time Liberal builds a convincing argument!)..The Globe continues to grant anonymity to its political “sources” for reasons that can best be described as, “Uhh, why?” Anonymity should protect those providing important information at personal risk, not some gutless political hack with an axe to grind and some spare adjectives to emit. There’s always someone who disagrees with a political decision – it kind of matters who that someone is, doesn’t it? Is it Bob Rae criticizing his new leader? Or is it some old guy in Saskatoon who thinks the party’s gone straight to hell ever since Louis St. Laurent passed?

But if you’re going to be so lazy as a journalist, why stop with telling us what “one long-time Liberal” thinks? Don’t leave us hanging. What does “one Liberal MP” think? Where does “one former Liberal strategist” stand? How is “a senior party official” reacting to the news? How are we going to get the whole inaccurate and biased picture if we don’t get the full range of pointless and slanted quotes?

Here’s my question, which I am in part borrowing from a commentator in the Maclean’s message thread who asked this and got no reply from any of the major network media: What are your policies concerning the use of unnamed or anonymous sources?  Do you have any? Or do you allow them willy-nilly because you’re desperate to put out some unique “news story” before your competition does?

Again from the Maclean’s commentator thread, here is the policy of the NY Times regarding anonymous sources, that maybe some in the Canadian media should be adopting:

The Times policy, which was significantly tightened after a reporter was caught fabricating stories in 2003, is as follows: First, reporters should press sources to go on the record. The best reporters manage to write some extremely sensitive stories with few or no anonymous sources… Second, an editor should know the identity of any unnamed source, and should push for attribution (or eliminate the material from the story) if anonymity is not justified. Third, where anonymous sources are used editors are expected to assure that reporters reveal as much as we can about the veracity of the source (that is, how do they know what they’re telling us?) and any potential bias (does the source have an ax to grind?)

Like any lazy practice, anonymous sourcing tends to proliferate if it is not watched. So thanks for a timely shot across the bow.”

I’d assert that we’re seeing a lot of lazy practices and a lot of anonymous source proliferation from the Canadian media, and I point my finger at the Globe and Mail and a certain reporter on that staff for one of those engaged in it far too often. It should not be granted and passed out willy-nilly, as has been done far too often the past couple of years. If you’re going to grant anonymity to a Liberal source, for example, you really should have better reasons for granting anonymity then because the Liberal leadership will get ticked off at the person if he/she were to do criticisms in public of a political stance that Mr. Ignatieff has taken.

This type of practice of handing out free anonymous cards to disgruntled folks at best can be described as trying to start mischief, and at worse, trying to inflict political and public relations damage to a political party in a partisan manner that is more befitting of Fox News.

5 comments to A question for the Canadian media on the use of anonymous sources

  • Ron

    Excellent post – finally someone else is highlighting a problem I have noticed in the MSM for a long time. Lazyness is probably a large part of the problem but I am starting to believe it is simply a cover for the author pushing his/her own agenda and opinion. All too frequently the phrase “critics say” is being used for the same purpose. When and where did the quality and honesty of our reporters start its downhill slide? Probably about the same time they became celebrities. Check out any of the political shows and you have wall to wall journalists flogging an opinion – facts and proof have become hinderances so they quote “reliable sources”, “critics”, “inside sources” etc. Quality is in a steep decline – partisanship is becoming more and more blatant. It may be one of the reasons newspapers are experiencing declining readership – why pay for slanted, one sided, unreliable information when the blogs are overflowing with it!!!!!

  • Jason Townsend

    Mind you, Jane Taber has the same story, published twice, on the Globe and Mail right now – Ignatieff takes heat for decision, is the headline, excluding the somwhat crucial detail “from Tom Fricking Flanagan,” who would argue Ignatieff was making a shameful and potentially fatal error if he singlehandedly solved the world’s problems and brought about the millennium.

  • Jason Townsend

    “Democrats in disarray.doc” and “Leak from Senior Liberal.doc” are on the hard drives of every lazy hack in DC and Ottawa; all they do is load it up, cut and paste some quotes and poof, there’s a new story, and you can tell it’s all journalistic because it advances a conventional wisdom narrative; everyone nod sagely.

    I saw a sportswriter describe a hockey defense as “as leaky as the Liberal caucus” a few months back. “As lazy as a bush-league Canadian political journalist” would have been apter.

  • It’s not just laziness and it’s not just about manufacturing news when there isn’t any. It’s also about slanting public perception. The corporate media have long since passed the impartiality-in-the-press principle.

  • I agree with you Scott, I’d just say this problem is not just confined to Liberal sources. We see anon sources snipping from other parties too. So the media isn’t biased against one party or another (not that you said they were), they’re biased in favour of a sensational story. And they’re lazy. it’s easier to get a juicy anon quote, people wouldn’t say this stuff on the record.

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