The leading US-based news organizations â€“ the New York Times and the Associated Press â€“ violated their respective sourcing policies (and any semblance of reason) in reporting on US claims of "evidence" that Iranian officials are behind attacks on US forces in Iraq. In fact, most major outlets shoved their own policies aside like crazed shoppers on Black Friday, rushing to be first to report unsubstantiated, anonymously sourced allegations that put the US further on a war footing with Iran.
Neither the AP nor the Times explained to their readers â€“ as is policy at both corporations â€“ why the three anonymous sources who presented a highly orchestrated press briefing on Sunday insisted on and were granted anonymity. Here are the relevant rules:
â€“From the "AP statement on anonymous sources"
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.
Whenever anonymity is granted, it should be the subject of energetic negotiation to arrive at phrasing that will tell the reader as much as possible about the placement and motivation of the source...
â€“New York Times policy on confidential news sources
To be fair, it isnâ€™t entirely clear that the Times insists on explaining sourcesâ€™ motivation for remaining anonymous. It could be insisting on their motivation for coming forward. But since the Times did neither in breaking or later rejoining this story, itâ€™s pretty clear that even this relatively forgiving policy was trampled.
It has always been important to both outlets that they be able to cast aside this most-inconvenient policy. It can be adhered to when there is a good reason for a source to remain anonymous, such as a whistleblower or a fugitive. Such are the stories that lend credibility and integrity to a news outlet, as they should. But when the source is a sanctioned leaker â€“ an official or agent passing along information that is beneficial to the government â€“ adherence to principled policies would prohibit the corporate media from carrying out a key function: doing the governmentâ€™s bidding.
How ridiculous it would be, after all, if the AP wrote something like: "The official insisted on remaining anonymous for fear of public accountability." Or if the Times were to print: "The source demanded anonymity â€˜because I said so.â€™"
So the AP avoided the issue altogether. The Times tried a more awkward approach:
The officials were repeatedly pressed on why they insisted on anonymity in such an important matter affecting the security of American and Iraqi troops. A senior United States military official gave a partial answer, saying that without anonymity, a senior Defense Department analyst who participated in the briefing could not have contributed.
That partial answer was apparently good enough, even though it pretty strongly suggested the other two sources could have allowed their names to be printed, and the reason given for the "analyst" is sketchy, at best.
Perhaps most egregious of all the violations, it appears that the true identity of the source identified as an "analyst" was not even known to the reporters. This is an extraordinary violation of journalistic ethics, and it was carried out collectively, by the whole Baghdad corporate press gaggle.
When a source insists on anonymity despite obvious approval from his or her bosses, reason dictates one assume the source is either lying or has an ulterior motive. Sure, some government agencies have policies that no one on staff can talk to reporters on the record or for attribution, even when conveying official policy, but thatâ€™s not a reason; if anything, it begs the question, but it certainly doesnâ€™t excuse journalists from their duty of insisting on transparency.
It is difficult to believe that anyone at last weekendâ€™s officially sanctioned press event was under the impression that the presenters were telling the whole truth. The only conceivable motive for secrecy was that the presentersâ€™ careers would be over if they were publicly associated with baseless accusations. (Others have done a much-better job explaining how it is almost certainly untrue that Iranian officials are behind the attacks on US personnel for which they are blamed.)
Then thereâ€™s this tidbit from the Times policy; thereâ€™s no clear parallel in the APâ€™s rules.
â€“New York Times
If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.
Or not â€“ whichever the reporter and editors prefer, evidently. In this case, there was no further reporting, except to seek comment from Iran, which declined at the time the story was being rushed to press.
â€“New York Times
We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.
The sources admitted they were speculating during last weekendâ€™s presentation. According to the Times:
The officials said such an assertion was an inference based on general intelligence assessments.
So the only question is whether the Times was relaying the substance of the claims as news, or was reporting on the "act of speculating." The answer is fairly clear in the articleâ€™s lead sentence:
â€¦senior United States military officials on Sunday literally put on the table their first public evidence of the contentious assertion that Iran supplies Shiite extremist groups in Iraq with some of the most lethal weapons in the war.
Instead of treating the news briefing as an unsubstantiated spectacle, the paper took it very seriously and rushed it to print almost without any verification or skepticism. Since no evidence was presented that "Iran" â€“ which can only mean the Iranian government, not rogue Iranian agents or smugglers â€“ is supplying the weapons to anyone in Iraq, the Timesâ€™s opening statement is an editorialized assertion that the official claims hold water. Later on, the reporter gushes:
Whatever doubts were created about the timing and circumstances of the weapons disclosures, the direct physical evidence presented on Sunday was extraordinary.
The sensible, professional response to a request by three US government officials wishing to share officially approved information under conditions of anonymity, would be to refuse. Indeed, decent journalists would refuse to relay information under such conditions, not just as a matter of policy â€“ which should go without saying â€“ but as a method of protest. Organizations should refuse to convey such information, and those that report it should come under fire from the competitors.
In the real world, organizations that refuse to convey baseless accusations of international treachery are left in the dust. The higher your standards for integrity, the less attention you will get from the public and others in the industry. In the end, poor reporting of sensational subject matter always trumps prudent reporting of content that bears public relevance.
In case youâ€™re curious, here is the relevant excerpt from The NewStandardâ€™s own policy on anonymous sources:
When deciding under what conditions to gather and publicize information, keep in mind that identity-protection should be limited to credible whistleblowers or others with genuine concerns about personal safety or retaliation. Under normal circumstances, sources must stand strongly enough behind their views to be identified.
To read the whole policy, check out pages 22 and 40 of our Content Contributorsâ€™ Handbook.