Thursday, April 27, 2006

Plus ça change . . .

Yet another boring article on yet another boring journalist talking heads panel on how to defend anonymous sourcing.

The article, entitled "Lively Discussion on Anonymous Sourcing Breaks Out at ASNE" (American Society of Newspaper Editors), contained all the standard defenses of the need to keep anonymous sources from being revealed, and pious exhortations to use them only when truly needed.

Here's the snoozer lede (I've written a number of them, so I know 'em when I see 'em):

"Anonymous sources must be defended in the wake of new government efforts to uncover them, but also used only sparingly so they don't reduce the credibility of newspapers, a group of editors and reporters from some of the nation’s top newspapers agreed Wednesday."

The classic journo position on anonymous sourcing is much like that of Bill Clinton on abortion -- it should be safe, legal and rare.

Trouble is, anonymous sourcing isn't rare. It's profligate, and usually without any great need.

Just to illustrate, I went to the Washington Post's search page and looked for a phrase fragment often used with anonymous sources: "to be identified", as in "declined to be identified" or "did not want to be identified."

Here's a sample of what the search revealed Thursday evening:

"Olmert will stress in his Washington visit threats against Israel leveled by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the sources who declined to be identified pending a White House announcement of the visit." -- AP story on visit of acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, April 27

"Sources, who declined to be identified because of the confidentiality of the proceedings, said a key reason the talks failed was that the board declined to remove some trustees who had been seen as most prominent in the decision to award the severance package." -- Post story on calls for reform at American University, April 27

" '(The price) is pretty much in line with expectations,' said a London-based analyst, who declined to be identified." -- Reuters story on a corporate acquisition, April 27.

" 'Our options are a peace initiative that would fall short of direct recognition of Israel, cement ties with President Mahmoud Abbas to overcome world isolation, or go underground and end the truce with Israel,' said a third Hamas official, who declined to be identified." Another Reuters story, on options for the terrorist organization Hamas.

And so on . . . there's plenty more stories you can find that fit this mold. What I found doesn't confirm Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell's contention, quoted in the ASNE story, "that the highest percentage of anonymous sources are not in national stories, as some believe, but in sports, with national stories ranking fourth."

Perhaps anonymous source phrasing is different for sportswriters, but I didn't see any sports stories in my quick stroll through the archives. I wonder what Howell's source is for her statement?

Read Jack Shafer, a longtime crusader against "anonymice," on their infestation of a recent New York Times story.

To use another analogy, the overabundance of anonymous sourcing is like the weather. All the editors talk about it, but . . .

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