Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Reporters Shouldn't Use Unnamed Sources, part MCMLXXXVI

I've mentioned this from time to time here on basic journalistic principle of reporters to use more than one source for a news (sports) story. Some may call me old fashioned, but basic tenets of journalism require that a reporter verify facts before publishing a story. And in any case, the sources a reporter uses should be "on the record"--i.e. named. Only in extreme circumstances should sources be unnamed in a story.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) includes a code of ethics listed on its website. SPJ states,

"Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability."

I know--most news and sports reporters now use the ubiquitous "unnamed source" in a majority of their stories (sometimes this is stated as a "source close to the situation"). Why I find this unacceptable is not only do I agree with the SPJ that the public is "entitled to as much information as possible" regarding a source's credibility, but it also helps keep the source accountable--if a reporter has promised anonymity to a source, he or she won't disclose the name of that source, even if the story is inaccurate. So a source can be mistaken--or lie, even--with no penalty.

Add to it that if the reporter only has that one "unnamed" source, he or she cannot independently verify the story to ensure its accuracy. As a result, the public is inundated with stories that end up being wrong.

Like this one.

Transition Coming At IMS

Robin Miller now reports for SpeedTv and If you're not familiar with his work, Miller was a reporter/columnist at the Indianapolis Star for several years until he was fired in 2000. He has also been very critical of Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George, especially after the CART/IMS split a few years back.

The controversial, ground-breaking, tumultuous 20-year reign of Tony George at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appears to be over. has learned George was voted out of power in a Tuesday night board meeting in Indianapolis.

A source close to the situation confirmed that the 49-year-old grandson of Tony Hulman would no longer be CEO of the Speedway after a vote of the IMS board of directors which includes mother Mari, sisters Josie, Nancy and Kathy, attorney Jack Snyder and George.

Of course, we have the use of an unnamed "source close to the situation." Who is this person? How close to the situation? Wouldn't it be nice if we could judge for ourselves?

The story includes comments from George and his mother, Mari Hulman George. However,
this isn't the original story that was posted by Miller today (though SpeedTv would like you to think so). The original story was much more definite in its language; it stated very directly that George was out but had no comments from him (apparently, George did not respond to an email). Here is the page where the original story was posted (note the title of the story in the URL) and here is a link to an story by Bruce Martin, who appears to use Robin Miller's story as his source (though Martin writes it as if reported on the story, too).

So why the change in the SpeedTv version of the story? Perhaps this is why:

Tony George: I'm Still In Charge Of IMS

Tony George and Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials said today that George has been asked to spend more time focusing on the Indy Racing League, but they denied a report that he has been ousted from his key role at IMS.

At least for now, it appears Miller's story is completely wrong. Curt Cavin's story from the Indianapolis Star website includes quotations from George and his mother, saying that George is still the CEO of IMS. Also, it includes details from the two of what happened at the board meeting.

Now back to the revised Miller article. Despite the denials of the IMS, Miller's article is still written as if George being out is a done deal, which is curious since it's pretty safe to say that there is at least some uncertainty regarding the situation:

George's ouster comes a couple weeks after his wife, Laura, was removed from her job as staff advisor at the Speedway.

It's assumed Jeff Belskus, the IMS chief financial officer, and Curt Brighton, general counsel for the Speedway, will run the show until a replacement is hired. One name making the rounds has been Humpy Wheeler, the longtime promoter at Charlotte who was at last Sunday's Indy 500 for the first time since 1970.

I love it that the guy's name is "Humpy." If it's a nickname, I wonder how he got it? Does he dry-hump people when he meets them?

Again, awfully certain-sounding language for a story that's been flatly denied by everyone involved. Either the editors are behind, or they are very sure of their story.

How can this be, when the principal actors are denying it? A
s much as I hate the idea of defending Robin Miller, it is possible the story is true. Reading between the lines of the IMS press release, it's feasible that the IMS board has voted to remove George, but has asked/given him time to work on a succession plan and will wait to announce the change until later in the summer.

Or, it's possible that Robin Miller is again wrong, and the story is crap.

What would help Miller's case is if we could judge for ourselves the source he used for his story. Who is it? Is he or she credible? What if it's one of George's sisters, who are allegedly the ones responsible for his ouster? That would certainly help Miller's credibility, and would allow SpeedTv to stand by the story.

There is a another advantage to using a named source. If Miller had used a named source, both Miller and SpeedTv would be protected from looking bad if the story does turn out to be false. With a named source, even if that source admitted to being wrong or lying later, the inaccuracy would lie with the source. However, by using the "unnamed source," Miller and SpeedTv have no protection--they will look like fools and their credibility would suffer.

That is, assuming Robin Miller has any to begin with.

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Blogger Zinglebert Bembledack said...

I understand the desire of a journalist to try and keep his/her source anonymous. You want your source to continue to be able to feed you information. If the name is released, they may no longer be privy to that type of information or may cost them their jobs.

That said, an ethical journalist should release the name of the source in a case similar to yesterday's debacle. When the subject of your story and his mother adamantly refute your story, you either need to show where your information came from or be able to back up your story from another vantage point.

As Slut has said before (again and again and again...and again), when did we go from a journalist requiring two "named" sources to one "unnamed" source? Was this source someone who was actually privy to the board meeting? Like everyone else, I'm thinking probably not at this point.

The mainstream media like to bash bloggers on their lack of journalism, but the quality mainsteam media has been in a steep decline for the past several years. We are getting to the point of the pot calling the kettle black.

Anyways, my opinion of Robin Miller hasn't changed and there is a reason he was shown the door by the Indianapolis Star. And if the Star hasn't canned Bob Kravitz yet, then you know Miller had to be pretty bad!

May 28, 2009 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger Zinglebert Bembledack said...

Sorry there is one other thing I forgot to address. Miller tried to put a good deal of emphasis on the aatendance of Humpty at the 500. It probably was quite meaninful that Humpty was at the race, but Robin either forgot or forgot to mention that "The King", Richard Petty, was also attending his first race in ages. I believe it was more likely that Humpty was there to support or hang with The King than to muscle his way into the IMS heirarchy.

Just another reason Miller's story isn't holding much water.

May 29, 2009 at 8:40 PM  

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