“Source” – Some Journalists’ Invisible Friend
“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
Hunter S. Thompson
“Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.”
The most quoted person in journalism today is ‘Source’. He (or she and sometimes they) is everywhere. He goes by many different names. Sometimes Source is identified as ‘Reliable Source’ and sometimes as ‘Unnamed source’.
Source gets around and often hangs out with fairly well-placed others and together they’re sometimes referred to as ‘sources close to’. The most important Source is ‘an unnamed, reliable source close to….’.
While Source is often quoted, Source never appears in public and nobody except the journalist quoting Source ever gets to see or interview him, her or them.
I don’t mind admitting that it’s a bit of an issue for me. I believe that If Source is going to accuse someone of something or if the media are going to use Source as the sole informant for a story, there is an obligation to name Source so that his, her’s or their veracity can be verified or challenged. Failing that, then the information provided by Source should be corroborated from others who will speak on the record.
It’s difficult to respond to an ‘Anonymous source’. It’s also difficult for us to know whether or not we can trust the information because we don’t know whether Source actually exists or is just a figment of a journalist’s imagination.
It’s not like some journalists and media these days haven’t been proven to have crossed the line from objective journalism to political advocacy and that always changes the colour of the information being transmitted.
In fact, much of what is being touted as pure journalism these days is not much more than public relations for a particular political ideology or cause. You don’t have to look much further than the coverage of the Benghazi story during last fall’s Presidential election.
It was a disgrace caused by major news outlets refusing to cover the story lest it damage President Obama’s reelection campaign. It never occurred to those networks and news organizations that blocked the story that if it was true, perhaps the President didn’t deserve reelection.
Like politicians, the ends justified the means and winning took precedence over integrity, responsibility and objectivity.
It clearly didn’t occur to many in the media that it was ‘the people’s’ right to decide based on all available information as to the President’s credibility and it is the fourth estate’s responsibility to provide complete, factual and objective reporting to inform the people so they could make an informed choice for themselves.
That is the role of the press in a free society. It is why most democratic nations have laws guaranteeing freedom of the press and with great freedom comes great responsibility.
Like so many others who have been given significant freedoms, the media are increasingly ignoring the responsibility that comes with it.
In Canada, we’ve watched the Toronto Star slowly slide into the worst kind of tabloid journalism in its war against Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford. In any other venue, The Star’s unrelenting barrage of half-truths and quotes from Source and his anonymous friends might actually be considered harassment. It is the worst kind of yellow journalism that is based on innuendo, unproven allegations and a lack of substantive corroboration.
I expect to see a headline any day now that the mayor fathered the alien child of an explorer from Altair 6 or some other planet.
The Star’s latest attack was about a cell phone video that purports to show the Mayor smoking crack. The video was offered by a couple of unnamed drug dealers – always one of your better sources for accurate and honest information – who supposedly were shopping the video around with an asking price of $200,000.
It was interesting to me that no other news organization came forward to acknowledge that they too had been approached and offered an opportunity to view and then purchase the video which makes you wonder why not. Why only the one major newspaper that has made it a crusade to try and overturn the results of an election and have the Mayor kicked out of office?
Surely, the dealers trying to sell it wouldn’t care which news organization bought it and it is almost guaranteed that the Enquirer would have coughed up the cash had they been approached. The Enquirer seems to have an unlimited supply of cash to pay for many of the stories they run.
There used to be a fundamental standard in journalism that required reporters to verify a story through other corroborating sources. The Star had those corroborating sources – they were other Star reporters.
Isn’t that just convenient? They didn’t even have to leave the building to find a corroborating source to back up the story. He was sitting right there at the next desk.
The website Gawker started a fund raising campaign in order to purchase the video and they’ve claimed to have raised almost enough to buy it. Unfortunately, by coincidence, the dealers and the video have disappeared making it very difficult to actually obtain and publicly air the video in support of the claims made in The Star.
Sometimes life’s a bitch, isn’t it?
As usual, with commentary like the one I’m writing, it is always important to run a disclaimer so here it is. There are many journalists who stick to the ethical side of the street and who do a commendable job pursuing the news. In Canada, the revelations in the Senate expense scandal would never have been brought forward without some hard-hitting fundamental journalism and that is precisely why we have freedom of the press. It is one of the checks on government power.
When it works, it works well but it only works when journalists remember that they aren’t part of the story nor are they there to influence it or its eventual outcome. Freedom of the press isn’t a license to say or print whatever you want whenever you want; it’s a responsibility to provide real facts from real people and not only from Source and his invisible friends.
Remember Woodward and Bernstein’s relentless pursuit of Watergate?
They had a source named Deep Throat who fed them information but they never published based solely on what Deep Throat provided. They used him as the source for information on the broadening scandal but always sought two other sources to go on the record and corroborate the story. If they couldn’t find that corroboration, no matter what Deep Throat had provided, the information wasn’t published.
Journalists used to rush to scoop each other, now it’s a rush to hang somebody or to prevent a hanging and whatever else that might be called, it ain’t journalism either. That’s participation in the news rather than the reporting of it.
Television news has become a perverted mix of entertainment and commentary that distorts the objectivity of the story. For all of the hours and hours devoted to this story or that, it is shallow, biased and often functions with complete disregard for the privacy or the rights of others.
There is no room for trivial things like presumption of innocence in television journalism nor is there much time for the newsmakers themselves.
Television news programs interview more journalists about major stories than they do the newsmakers and I get tired of watching the pretty boys and girls rushing through an interview with a Political Leader or some other person in the news so that they can get to the journalistic celebrity panel for a long protracted discussion of the story.
Quite frankly, I don’t need a piece of fluff like Soledad O’Brien or CBC’s Evan Solomon telling me what the person in the news meant. Let me hear and see if for myself and I’ll figure it out.
The extent that television news outlets go to at times is not merely absurd, it’s downright insulting. A couple of weeks ago on CNN, Nancy Grace and Ashleigh Banfield were covering a story. Ms Banfield cut to Nancy Grace with the admonition that there would be brief audio delays because Ms Grace was being brought to the viewer by satellite. As it turns out, Nancy Grace was standing about 100′ away in the same parking lot as Ashleigh Banfield. It was all unnecessary theater and that, my friends, erodes the credibility of the news by eroding the credibility of those delivering it.
I prefer to have them give me the information and let me draw my own conclusions but the media has become a filter that delivers ‘massaged’ information in too many cases and outright fabrications or distortions in too many others.
Reporting that President Obama’s support has slipped is newsworthy. Reporting as part of that story that anyone who doesn’t support him is a racist is not merely opinion — it’s garbage. :Likewise, reporting that the Prime Minister walked his son to his first day of school is news. Reporting that because the Prime Minister shook hands with rather than hugged his son at the schoool yard gate indicates that he is a cold, uncaring person isn’t. It’s an opinion formed based on bias and without possession of all known and relevant facts.
In both cases it is opinion designed to distort the news with the intent of influencing how it is interpreted.
A little bit of journalistic opinion is welcome. Some journalists like The Star’s Chantal Hebert, Andrew Coyne at The National Post and the CBC’s Rex Murphy only offer opinion and I have no issue with that. It is clear that they are presenting their opinion based on their understanding of the facts of an issue but there is a difference between opinion and opinion presented as objective news reporting.
Too many in journalism today have unfortunately lost sight of that difference. They don’t know where the line is anymore and too many news organizations have become public relations arms for various causes and political ideologies. Opinion has no place in a news story. It should be separate and apart from the news and clearly labeled as opinion.
Some media outlets get that. Too many don’t and the news they report and how they report it is heavily influenced by opinions and political agendas. Journalism is becoming a form of partisan, judgement-based commentary with a few facts thrown in to support the opinion. That becomes its own form of censorship after awhile. Nothing is ever seen or reported objectively; it is always viewed and then presented through the partisan lens.
Currently, the media in the United States is outraged over revelations that the Department of Justice accessed the phone records of reporters at Associated Press and Fox News. They should be outraged. It is an egregious assault on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press and definitely a threat to the integrity of the press.
Unfortunately, as serious as that is, it pales in comparison to the erosion of that same freedom by those to whom it was entrusted. It is the media itself that is the greater threat to press freedom because the media no longer polices itself or adheres to a consistent set of journalistic standards that guarantee objective and factual reporting.
It is undermining its own credibility with the broader public in a way no assault by the Department of Justice can achieve. In the end, it is usually the compromising of our own principles and values that does more damage to us than any external threat ever could.
It’s something the media would do well to try and remember. They would also do well to remember that the difference between professionals and amateurs is that professionals can divorce themselves from their personal feelings in the pursuit of their vocation. Amateurs cannot. Whatever they are doing is heavily influenced by how the feel, what they believe and what they support.
And that is the greatest threat of all to freedom of the press.
A press that no longer reports the objective and unbiased truth is no longer a free press. It has become a slave to ideology and bias.
It’s as simple as that.
“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”
Edward R. Murrow
© 2013 Maggie’s Bear
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