Sunday, July 19, 2009

The AP Anonymity Game -- UPDATED

See update at end of post:

By Bradley J. Fikes

Anonymous sourcing is generally looked down on in the journalism world, for good reason. The readers have no way of judging the source's credibility, whether he or she has an ax to grind or even whether the source exists. (See: Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, etc.).

So most journalistic organizations, including the Associated Press, have policies that strictly limit the use of anonymous sources. But the policies are no good if they're not enforced, and AP Watch has collected a few examples of where AP stories have violated its own policy.

For example, take this July 17 AP story on a union proposal to use card-check voting for whether to organize at workplaces. The story says:

"A Democratic official familiar with compromise talks on a bill to make forming unions easier said union leaders are willing to drop the politically volatile card check plan to win over wavering Senate Democrats.

"The official spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are still ongoing."

The Associated Press Managing Editors has issued a statement on the proper use of anonymous sources. Among other things, the policy states:

The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient — when material comes from an authoritative figure whose detail makes it clear and certain that the information is accurate.

We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it's relevant, we must describe the source's motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible.

The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source's credibility; simply quoting "a source" is not allowed. We should be as descriptive as possible: "according to top White House aides" or "a senior official in the British Foreign Office." The description of a source must never be altered without consulting the reporter.

Now contrast the constraints of that statement on anonymous source use with what the reporter actually did with the card-check story. The ID as "a Democratic official familiar with compromise talks," doesn't give any guidance.

A Democratic official could be just about anyone with a post in the party. We're not told if the official is in Congress, or works for congressional staff. In short, we're not told why the source is credible. We're also not told about the source's motives for disclosing information. Apparently, the reporter doesn't think that's relevant.

The AP statement gives examples of what constitutes credibility, such as "top White House aides" or a "senior official in the British Foreign Office." These give you some idea of how the official is in a position to know. Merely being a Democratic official gives you no such idea.

And close reading shows that the story's flat assertion is not as firmly based as the introduction states. Further down in the story, we learn that the outcome is not certain because "negotiations are still ongoing."

Even further down, another anonymous source, identified only as a "labor official", undermines the first anonymous claim:

And another labor official who requested anonymity stressed that card check is not completely off the table and that no deal would be final until labor leaders check with affiliates to make sure they are on board.

So "card check is not completely off the table." So where is it? Dangling over the edge? Levitating above the table? This qualification undermines the story's lede, but it is buried near the end.

And in this instance, the story doesn't even say why the labor official requested anonymity, despite the AP statement's requirement that the reason be disclosed.

Let's recap what we know from this AP story: One anonymous source says the unions have agreed to drop card check, but negotiations are still ongoing and there is no deal as of yet. And another anonymous source says the labor unions haven't gotten the approval of their affiliates.

After putting all the information together, the result is nothing more than unverified gossip.

In politics, special interest groups try to use the media all the time to send up trial balloons of controversial ideas. The leakers don't want their names associated with the idea, so they speak anonymously. It benefits both parties: the leaker gets the trial balloon out, and the reporter gets the story. But the public is being manipulated.

We have to trust the reporter this is not happening with this story. But such trust is hard to give when the reporter violates his news organization's own policy.

This is far from an isolated case. AP stories routinely violate the policy described above. You can even make a game of it: In Google News, type in "source: AP anonymity" (without the quote marks). You can also use the word anonymous or the text string in quotes: "declined to be identified".

You'll find you'll find all sorts of stories using anonymity. Here are three recent examples found in a few minutes of playing the AP Anonymity Game:

-- Here's a story about a board meeting by commercial lender CIT Group. The single anonymous source is characterized only as "a person briefed on the talks." We have no information on how this person is in a position to know.

-- Here's a story about an investigation into Obama's former auto czar, Steve Rattner. The sole anonymous source is described as a "person familiar with a New York investigation into the state's public pension fund." Likewise, we are not given a clue as to what kind of position this person has that would provide that familiarity.

-- And here's one about Notre Dame and Army supposedly playing at Yankee Stadium next year. This is attributed to "a person familiar with the arrangement," which tells us absolutely nothing at all. How do we readers know this source has access to this information? Because, says the reporter, the source is familiar with the arrangement!

How can the Associated Press be trusted for accuracy when its reporters routinely violate their own employer's policy, established to ensure accuracy?

UPDATE: See my AP Watch colleague Tom Blumer's take on the story at BizzyBlog. Blumer finds stuff I missed. For example, the story describes business groups as "railing" against card check -- a blatantly loaded word. The whole story is written from the viewpoint that card check is a good thing labor may have to give up. There is not a hint that there may be legitimate reasons to oppose card check.


DISCLAIMER: This post represents the opinion of author Bradley J. Fikes, and not necessarily that of his employer, the North County Times.


  1. "Anonymous sourcing is generally looked down upon in the journalism world..."

    Is it...??? I mean, I wish it were, but you notice it constantly - I often notice it reflected in the writings of "name" journalists for the New York Times and the Washington Post (and newspapers and magazines of similar stature) as well as in my local rag, Ottaway's Times Herald Record, Orange County, NY.

    It drives me nuts! Where are the editors? Where are the publishers? (By my tone and reaction you'll note you've hit a sore spot, Brad.)

    As to burying the lede.. ha! tell me about it!

    Still, my "favorite" modern journalism faux pas is when you get get roped in by a headline, read the story, and somewhere around paragraph 13 you run across something that completely contradicts the headline! Oh, yeah... early Monday morning and already you've got the old blood pressure shooting up! (*GRIN*)

    Anyway... keep up the good work.


  2. Thanks, Bill.
    What I meant is that in theory, anonymous sources are looked down upon. Written policies of major news organizations strongly discourage anonymous sourcing. But in practice, it happens all the time.

    And yes, where are the editors? Where are the publishers? Well, I'm going to direct them here and see a lightbulb clicks on in their minds that poor journalism just might be a factor in the loss of reader trust.

  3. Good luck to you, Brad. In my experience... they just don't care.

    Yep. Call me cynical. But I'm telling you, up until a few years ago when I basically "bowed out" of day to day politics and frequent interaction with the press, I had been a constant thorn in the side to my local newspaper.

    Your blog... your idea... you're doing EXACTLY what I used to do. I'd deconstruct articles. I'd prove my point. I'd go up the chain...


    Hey... the sad truth is... sure, some of this sort of thing is simple sloppiness, perhaps even incompetence, but much of it is deliberate.

    Anyway... (*SIGH*)... keep pounding away; it certainly can't hurt!

    Oh... and yes... I understood you were talking "theory" with regard to the whole "sourcing" issue. I was just being playful. (*WINK*)

    Hey... not to toot my own horn... but if you wanna see an excellent example of how I disconstruct news/analysis, head on over to...


    Now of course Frum has nothing to do with the AP, but he's a writer - a pundit - and the techniques he employs are a fine example of how skilled media types consciously and deliberately steer readers to where they want them to go.

    I just wish more of our fellow citizens knew to look for what we know to look for.