Monday, June 26, 2017

Thoughts on News, Anonymous Sources, and Leaked Information

One of the most overused adjectives in modern news reporting is anonymous. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, it has three meanings:

1: of unknown authorship or origin (an anonymous tip);

2: not named or identified (an anonymous author; they wish to remain anonymous); and,

3: lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability (the anonymous faces in the crowd).

For purposes of the present discussion, the first two definitions are of primary interest.

A cornerstone of modern news reporting is the so-called "anonymous source." Many news reports rely on the input of sources who wish not to be identified. Some reasons often given for this wish include:

 - "the source was not authorized to speak to the media;"

- "in order to speak about internal discussions;"

- "in order to discuss classified material;" and,

- "because the source feared reprisals for speaking to the media."

Although it pains me deeply to agree with Donald Trump on anything, I have to agree on the issue of anonymous sources, and the leaking of privileged information in general. As a rule, I don't like or trust anonymous sources, because they make me complicit** in advancing their personal agendas, with which I may not agree and which may not be as altruistic as they would have us believe. Further, leaked information lacks valuable context. And finally, I don't find the usual excuses to be very persuasive:

If the source "was not authorized to speak to the media" but did so anyhow, what was his** reasoning? "Not authorized" to me means "not authorized," not "not authorized unless you think you know better than everybody else."

If the source provided privileged information "in order to speak about internal discussions," why were the discussions privileged and internal in the first place, and why did the source believe she had a right to expose them?

If the source provided privileged information anonymously "in order to discuss classified material," he needs to go to jail. We live in a world in which clueless idiots who have drunk the government-is-always-evil Kool Aid automatically equate "classified" with "juicy evidence of government wrongdoing." Most of the time, "classified" material is "classified" in order to protect the way in which it was collected, and to keep enemies from knowing we have collected it. Sanctimonious leakers who think they know better can imperil our capabilities and, in the worst case, cost lives. There are legitimate avenues for people with concerns to raise them within intelligence channels*** ... holier-than-thou showboaters belong in jail.

Finally, if the source provided privileged information anonymously "because she feared reprisals for speaking to the media," well, perhaps that source ought to be afraid, because she has violated the trust placed in her when access to the information was granted.

The number of news stories that rely exclusively on anonymous sources nowadays is huge, and likely to get larger. The problem for you and I as consumers and evaluators of news is that we do not know the source's motivation, nor do we know the context in which the source obtained the information he has released. Even worse, I think, is a news story that relies on multiple sources, all of whom want to remain anonymous. Does the fact that more than one anonymous source reports the same thing give more credence to the information? How do we know that they are not colluding with each other? Whom do you trust?

The reliance on anonymous sources places us in the situation of having to rely on the judgement of reporters - who may have their own political agendas or be driven by the competitive speed of the 24-hour news - to decide on the veracity of the leaked information.

At a time when the President of the United States has only the most tenuous of relationships with the truth, and his spokespersons shamelessly churn out obvious and provable falsehoods; when the news media relies on sources of information we cannot see or evaluate; where do we the people get the information we need to evaluate how well our government is serving us?

Where, indeed?

Have a good day. Listen critically and don't rely on single media outlets for your information. Some are better than others, but none deserves your complete and total attention and belief. Here's a useful chart that's about as "fair and balanced"†† as you're likely to find††† ...

More thoughts tomorrow.


* A useful Trump-era word.

** For the sake of simplicity, from here on out, when I use the pronouns "he," "she," "him," "her," or "his," you should understand that I mean "he or she," "him or her," and "his or her." I don't want to sound "sexist," but I also don't want the writing to be cumbersome.

*** I have used them myself.

† Another useful Trump-era word.

†† Did you notice that Faux News has quietly dropped that slogan?

††† Although I can hear the howls of outrage from both ends of the spectrum already.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

When it comes to anonymous sources, the question has to be the motivation of the leaker. Not to mention the veracity of the information. For some reason, there is a romantic perception of this process, when in reality there is a violation of trust involved. And in somme cases, illegal.

As for the chart, I would skew the position of the WaPo more to the left. It's not in the same category as the NYT. Or even the Boston Globe.

Grand Crapaud said...

Some of these anonymous tips can be simple big lies.

Deena said...

I like the AP as my source for reading news. And I distrust sources labeled as anonymous.

Mike said...

BBC news broadcasts a lot of news about the US that you never hear about on US news outlets.

Chuck Bear said...

Anonymous tips cannot be easily verified. They can be a source of alt facts.

allenwoodhaven said...

An excellent chart. Critical thinking is always important and anonymity always requires extra skepticism.

I think sources are best identified but, in what should be rare instances, accept otherwise if at least the reporters know who is giving the information and why they shouldn't be named. Motivation should always be part of that judgement.

It's a difficult issue, that's for sure.

Halfbrasilian said...

Wait...our State media outlet Fox News is under the "Meets High Standards" section on the chart?