At the end of each week, we excerpt some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we’ve received that week. Think we’ve missed something? Well… comment!

Rahm, Off the Record

This week’s “News Meeting’ question noted that the author of one of the many recent stories on Rahm Emanuel wrote that the chief of staff “declined to talk to me on the record for this article.” When that’s the case, we asked readers, should reporters talk to their subjects off the record—and if so, is there a limit?

Reporters in DC grant anonymity when sources won’t go the record. Period. They will continue to do so. When criticized they will say, “Of course we want them to go on the record, and we press them hard on that, but when they won’t…they won’t! What are we supposed to do?”

I’m not aware that the professional conversation about confidential sources has ever moved beyond this point, despite all the forums like this one.

Granting anonymity to sources is by definition a decision that bargains away the public’s right to know, on terms the public cannot know about. There’s no way for the reader of the account to tell whether the bargain the reporter made was a good one or a bad one.

Therefore confidentially sourced journalism is “trust me” journalism, more so than other types of reporting that carry within the account the means for judging whether the account is trustworthy. Thus the opposite of “trust me” journalism is not the untrustworthy kind but “…don’t believe me? check it yourself.” This is exactly what we cannot do when sources speak anonymously.

Where’s the line, you say? (Which, by the way, is the all time, hands down, number one champeeen CJR question, having been asked far more than any other.) I’ll bite: When the identity of the source plus the fact that the source can’t or won’t speak publicly are, taken together, more significant, more newsworthy than whatever information or insight the source provided, then a bad bargain has been struck.

But again, we can’t know when bad bargains are struck in our name, so we’re back to “trust me” journalism. The one way we could (sometimes) know is if reporters who suspect that a bad bargain was made tried to do some reporting on who the confidential sources were, but this is very hard to do and anyway a gentleman’s agreement is in place that says: you don’t investigate who my sources are and I won’t dig into yours, deal?


— Jay Rosen

I have great respect for Prof. Rosen. He’s one of the great journalism thinkers of our time. But he couldn’t be more wrong about this. Yes, anonymous sources can abuse their anonymity to promote an agenda. But that’s what separates the great reporters from the hacks. While some sources may lie “off the record” the undeniable fact is that many can only tell the truth, when they can speak privately. In fact most government lies are told ON THE RECORD, and only by using off the record or background sources can we get the leads that take us to the truth. Can you say Watergate? Bob Woodard argues, and I think he’s right, that reporters should use MORE anonymous sources, not fewer. The accountability comes with the accuracy of the reporting which can be judged only after the fact. Truth, accuracy, are the standards. I care more about figuring out whether what my sources are saying is true than getting them on the record.

— Jamie McIntyre

Hi Jamie: Read my comment again… Did I say anything about the problem of confidential sources lying?

I was trying to point our certain problems with confidential sources that obtain even if they are not lying. For example: Maybe I can’t decide what kind of discount rate I want to apply to sources, based on where I know them to be coming from, because when sources are anonymous I can’t tell where they’re coming from. That’s an example of a problem that applies even when the source is not lying. Instead of assessing where they are coming from I have to trust you, the reporter, which is why I referenced “trust me journalism.”

Without a doubt many, many valuable sources that journalists learn true and valuable things from can only speak under conditions of confidentiality. I am not disputing that. I also think the practice is abused. You’re not going to dispute that, are you?

The Editors