Confidential Source Use Tends to Harm Journalism

About three months ago, I proposed to blogger Mark Tapscottthat we conduct an online discussion about media shield laws. (He likes them; I do not.) He agreed, but I dropped the ball, and he has been kind enough not to complain.

I see, however, that Mark is once again addressing the issue, this week with a post about a pending U.S. House of Representatives hearing regarding a proposed federal journalist shield law, so maybe it is tiime for me to get back in the discussion.

In an earlier post, I discussed problems with shield laws in a specific law enforcement situation, and in this one I raised some other practical questions.

Today I intend to argue that regular use of confidential sources (which media shield laws tend to encourage) is bad for journalism.

My basic thesis: It is hard for a reader to fact-check a story when he doesn’t know who the sources are. Readers are better served when they have the ability to evaluate the source of information. Too often journalists use confidential sources when it isn’t really necessary, making it much harder for the reader to decide if the source is objective or has the necessary expertise to be credible. Furthermore, a desire to protect or, conversely, exploit confidential sources can alter a journalist’s objective presentation of information. All these factors undermine both the reliability and credibility of the news profession.

Argument 1: The use of confidential sources reduces readers’ trust in journalists.

The obvious point here is that a documented fact is more likely to be believed than an unsourced one, but it goes beyond that. I’ll use an example from my own experience as a consumer of news.

Fred Barnes frequently uses unnamed White House sources in his Weekly Standard columns. Some, all or none of them may be Karl Rove. Last year, also in the Weekly Standard, while writing about the Fitzgerald investigation, Fred Barnes rose strongly to the defense of Karl Rove. I thought Barnes’s statements about Rove were unusually informative and detailed, and I wanted to believe Barnes’s conclusions were correct, but I decided to remain agnostic.

The reason was not any weakness of Barnes’s articles about Rove’s innocence, but because I remembered uncounted articles by Barnes in the past citing unnamed White House officials. Was Rove Barnes’s best source on a myriad of other issues? Did Barnes have a professional stake in keeping his best White House source unindicted? Or had Barnes simply talked to Rove so often, he tended without realizing it to see things Rove’s way?

I concluded that, based on the information given me by the Weekly Standard, that I had no way to judge Barnes’s objectivity (beyond the obvious fact that both men are conservatives) on the “Rove should not be indicted” question. Yet, had Barnes been in the habit of naming all his White House sources, I might have learned that Barnes has many sources in the White House other than, or instead of, Karl Rove. I still would have taken Barnes’s views on Rove with a grain of salt, as I would the views of any other White House supporter, but I would have been less (and possibly unnecessarily) suspicious of their pedigree.

Argument 2: Investigative journalists are in the catbird’s seat when it comes to confidential sources. If the journalist misquotes or misrepresents a confidential source’s material, what is that source to do? Put out a press release? Even if he is willing to blow cover, the journalist can always claim he had other sources.

Even taking a lower key approach by approaching other journalists and becoming a confidential source a second time is unlikely to get the record corrected, since no reader will have enough information to perceive that the second story is intended to correct the first.

Argument 3: Arguments that protected confidential sources once in a while allow a journalist to solve a crime or protect the public in some tangible way skirt the fact that most confidential sources are promoting themselves, not the public interest. Skilled players of this game, sources and journalists alike, learn to use one another to mutual advantage.

It works like this: The source doles out material to a chosen journalist, who then uses the material in a way flattering to the source. The source, in turn, continues to feed the journalist. If the source stops providing information spicy enough to make the journalist stand out, the journalist may abandon the source, so the source has an incentive to “sex up” his information. On the other hand, if the journalist doesn’t treat the source properly (too often publishes material in some way inconvenient to the source), the source may find another journalists who will treat him better. So the journalist keeps this fact in mind.

“I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine” is far from a model system if the goal is providing the public with objective facts, objectively presented. It is instead a mutually-beneficial-career-assistance-pact benefiting the individual journalist and his source, while harming the long-term credibility of journalism and (often) the source’s own profession. If the source is in government, it may hurt the country as well.

Being an opinionated sort of person, I have other thoughts on the use of confidential sources, but I think these are enough for one day. Back to you, Mark.

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