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Root of all evil?

5/26/2010

It was Al Neuharth, founder and publisher of USA Today, who famously referred to anonymous sources as "the root of all evil in journalism." It appears those roots have spread, with such sourcing now the mother's milk of modern media.

Look no further than the ombudsman mailbag, which had an abundance of complaints in the past month. These included criticism of a column readers thought should never have seen the light of day, critiques of a controversial story some thought went too far and pans aimed at a service on ESPN.com that focuses on tracking rumors. The common thread? Anonymous sources.

There is no question that some of America's most important stories could never have been told without relying on sources who don't want their names revealed: Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Guantánamo, etc. In earlier times, unnamed sources were used judiciously and required corroboration. But in the current atmosphere of instantaneous information, it seems that caution too often can be thrown to the wind, along with the confidence of the audience.

Names such as The New York Times' Jayson Blair, The Washington Post's Janet Cooke, The New Republic's Stephen Glass and USA Today's Jack Kelley live in the halls of journalistic infamy (along with their editors). These journalists (some would say fiction writers) brought shame to their profession by fabricating stories and attributing quotes to sources, both anonymous and named.

In theory, anonymous sources are a last resort. Reporters are challenged to get people to speak on the record, but sometimes that's just not possible. If the source remains unnamed, it must be a trade-off for candor and quality of information. Of course, there are times when information a source ardently believes to be true … turns out to be false. That's why independent corroboration by a reporter is key. Bad sourcing or lax oversight can result in the equivalent of a journalistic drive-by shooting, aided and abetted by information cloaked in a shroud of anonymity.

It can be difficult for the audience to determine whether information attributed to an unnamed source is reliable, simple rumor or totally untrue. An outrageous example of bad reporting was coverage of the Duke lacrosse team and allegations against several of its players in 2006. News organizations around the country quoted ever-present unnamed sources, public officials, court records, and each other for months, opining in synchronicity on what turned out to be a lie.

A 2005 State of the News Media study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism reviewed nearly 17,000 stories in newspapers, online media sites, network and cable television news, and found that 13 percent of "front page" stories used anonymous sources. The proliferation of online media outlets and competitive pressures have contributed to an ongoing surge since then, something that certainly appears to be true at ESPN.

According to the anonymous source tracker on the journalism blog The Ink-Stained Wretch, there were more than 20,000 uses of anonymous sources in more than 3,000 major media outlets in the past three months. ESPN was 15th on the list, far behind outlets such as BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post, but ahead of the likes of CNN, Fox News, ABC News, MSNBC and The Boston Globe. The tool might be imperfect, but it certainly is directional in pointing out the media's continued reliance on unnamed sources.

"Sources are the lifeblood of newsgathering," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news. "But by putting trust in them, we accept the inherent danger of reporting things we have neither seen nor heard firsthand. Our credibility depends on their reliability; we need to assure that our trust is justified."

Dez Bryant and Jeff Ireland

The trust Doria references needed to be highly justified in the controversy surrounding an NFL pre-draft interview with eventual Dallas draftee Dez Bryant, as it called for an anonymous source to contradict an on-the-record report.

On April 27, Michael Silver, a longtime Sports Illustrated scribe, wrote a piece for Yahoo Sports about some of the more bizarre questions NFL rookies have been asked in their pre-draft interviews. Wrote Silver:

"Last Wednesday … former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant told me that … a high-level executive of one NFL franchise had asked him if his mother, Angela, was a prostitute. 'No, my mom is not a prostitute,' said Bryant, whose background -- including his mother's lifestyle and past legal troubles -- was under great scrutiny prior to the draft. 'I got mad -- really mad -- but I didn't show it.' "

That's it. No follow-up, no context. Just a few simple sentences that exploded across the sports media landscape. Silver identified the inquisitor as Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland, and the columnist excoriated Ireland for asking the question.

Commenting later that day on the alleged Bryant-Ireland conversation, PTI hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon were doing what they normally do - giving instant analysis and opinion based on timely, but potentially incomplete, news. In other words, performing a high-wire act without a net:

Kornheiser: "Was this particular question in bounds?"

Wilbon: "That's not an interview question. That's insulting … demeaning. If Dez Bryant had gotten up and turned the desk over on this guy, that would have been in bounds. If he had knocked his head off, where I come from, that would have been fine. When I talk about the NFL arrogance, this is what I'm saying … I'm talking about the feeling that you can say anything, do anything, and there are no consequences. This disgusts me."

Kornheiser: "Do you think it's possible … that they would be gauging what kind of person Dez Bryant is, that they wanted to see his reaction?"

Wilbon: "That's a justification that's garbage, if that's their justification. Tony, suppose she was. Then what? … So what is it getting at to ask that question? What's it provoke?"

Some viewers spotted illogic in the story. Ireland was a successful NFL GM whose livelihood depended, in part, on an ability to understand and deal with players. There were no reports of his having any difficulties in this area. So why, without prompting or context, would he ask a question that seemed so insulting, degrading, perhaps even bordering on racist?

When Kornheiser said to Wilbon "Do you think it's possible …" he seemed to be grasping for some rational explanation to the incongruities this -- and other situations like it in the past -- raised.

"I think, on PTI, we exhibit a healthy form of skepticism which I think is often called for," Kornheiser said when I asked him about the handling of the story. "I worry about a rush to judgment."

Asked about the pressure to comment when a story might still be evolving, Wilbon said, "You go with what you've got at the time. It's your interpretation of the facts as you know them. We do have the opportunity to come back the next day and revisit what we've said. We can clarify a false impression or even bring in a more thoughtful interpretation."

Just as PTI was airing that afternoon, Ireland released a statement apologizing for his remarks -- and giving more credence to Silver's story. The next morning, as the story continued to advance, ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike show weighed in.

Mike Greenberg: "That question's beyond inappropriate to ask anyone."

Mike Golic: "I would have punched him in the face, and I would have left."

Both hosts, as well as their interactive audience, gave Ireland a sound verbal thrashing. Interestingly, later in the program, Golic and Greenberg became aware that new rumors were circulating that hinted at more context and that Silver's account might not fully represent the conversation between Bryant and Ireland. The two Mikes adjusted their takes based on that new information, tempering their comments and allowing that there could be more to the story.

Exposure on all of ESPN's platforms helped make the story a hot topic around the sports dial. Meanwhile, the network's reporters were methodically checking their sources trying to confirm a more extensive version of the exchange between the rookie and the GM, which eventually was reported by Sports Illustrated:

Ireland: "What did your father do for a living when you were growing up?"

Bryant: "My dad was a pimp."

Ireland: "How did he meet your mom?"

Bryant: "She worked for my dad."

Ireland: "Your mom was a prostitute?"

Bryant: "No, she wasn't a prostitute."

In the two days after the initial Yahoo column, ESPN reporters were aware of the speculation of the larger conversational context but could not independently confirm it on the record -- and thus the network did not report the full exchange.

ESPN has fairly strict criteria for acceptable sourcing, and that sometimes puts the network at a disadvantage in the race to be first with breaking stories. The network is even more cautious when the issues have reputational implications.

The incessant media drumbeat continued as several NFL voices joined the debate, including former coaches and personnel directors. They noted that although the question could have been framed better, no question is out of bounds when contemplating giving a 22-year-old a multimillion-dollar salary … particularly if that player had a troubled past and planned to have his mother -- who had a criminal record -- live with him for the first time since he was 10.

Former NFL player Marcellus Wiley gave his perspective on the April 29 edition of "Outside the Lines": "You have to ask these questions and you have to ask them directly because you want to see this player's response in a direct manner. It's no time to sugarcoat it. … You think about this guy Dez Bryant who is going to move his mother into his home. … You think about all the teammates that I've had … most of their troubles have come from their circle of friends. … [That's] what gives these guys the enabling power to do some of the bad things and indiscretions we hear about. These family circles and these social circles …"

On Friday, Jim Trotter of SI.com posted a story that corroborated the rumored exchange. ESPN was also able to confirm it from an unnamed, but highly placed NFL source. Its criteria met, the network went forward with its coverage.

ESPN's Ed Werder reported that Bryant had texted him, saying he had never told Ireland that his father was a pimp. Bryant later told Werder on camera that any assertion to the contrary was a lie and that he didn't want to talk further about it.

That afternoon, PTI's Wilbon and Kornheiser were at it again, revisiting the topic with divergent opinions of the conflicting accounts:

Wilbon: "I believe Bryant. Jim Trotter is a close friend of mine, and he's a terrific reporter. But sometimes you get conflicting information, and the consumer -- in this case, we're consumers of information -- we have to choose. If [Trotter's account] had been the case, I believe that Ireland would have … told his media people … 'Hey, this didn't happen. There's more to this than meets the eye.' … These sorts of things happen all the time when you cover sports. … [But] I don't believe a word of it. I believe Dez Bryant's story."

Kornheiser: "I find [Trotter's account] believable, though not persuasive because I've racked my brain to try to figure out why would you ask anybody 'Was your mom a prostitute?' So this gives me something I can hold on to, though I actually have no idea what happened."

Unmentioned in the debate was the fact that Bryant had been declared ineligible by the NCAA the previous fall for lying to investigators about his relationship with former NFL star Deion Sanders. When I asked Wilbon whether Bryant's suspension had any impact on his point of view, he said, "No. There are certain judgments that ring true. We're making judgment calls. I wouldn't have judged it any differently. Bryant may not always tell the truth, but I believe him in this instance. His reaction, for me, had the ring of truth."

Trotter's story, like so many others, was based on unnamed sources. I asked Kornheiser how he felt, in general, about the reliability of unattributed quotes.

"You can trust certain sources because of their track record," he said. "But I worry about being wrong, all the time, and I'm much more nervous about it now than I ever used to be. I'm sarcastic and subversive and I know how to construct an argument, but what if it's based on facts that are wrong?"

Only the GM and the rookie receiver will ever truly know what was said in the interview. Was it just one shocking, outrageous isolated question out of the blue, or was it part of a natural sequence in a conversation, as Trotter reported? Stories like these are enthralling to the audience, but there are real-life consequences. Many mailbag contributors were upset about ESPN discussing Bryant's mother's past, feeling it was "disgraceful" or "irrelevant" or "crossing the line."

But as the story unfolded, it became germane information that had a bearing on Ireland's motivation for questioning Bryant. What is unalterably true is that a stigma has been attached to all involved.

For Ireland, if you take Silver's story at face value, it is one of insensitivity and perhaps even racism -- or at the very least clumsiness in dealing with a young African-American athlete. For Bryant, it refocused attention on his brush with the NCAA for lying and brought unnecessary scrutiny to his mother's past legal problems.

Sports fans have long memories, ingrained by the substantial glare of media attention. And if they forget, plugging the parties involved into Google will offer an instant reminder of the details. Reporters fill an important role in society, but they need to periodically remind themselves that the subjects of their transitory attention can end up debris on the highway as the media circus pulls out of town.

"As journalists, we recognize that the gathering and reporting of information has the potential to cause harm or discomfort," said Patrick Stiegman, vice president and executive editor & producer of ESPN.com. "At all times, we should be balancing the impact of those repercussions against public interest in that information and our journalistic service to the audience. It's often an ethical tightrope walk, and pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance. That said, journalism plays a critical role in public discourse, and that's precisely why accuracy, fairness, context and self-regulation are imperative in storytelling."

That's a solid articulation of what should be journalistic guidelines as long as "balancing the impact of those repercussions against public interest" is regularly considered. But no matter how well-intended a policy, actions speak louder than platitudes.

Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols

Our next stop in the world of unnamed sources is a March 15 blog post by ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney, whose column offered a glimpse at the machinations baseball teams go through concerning the possible trades of superstars. The opening paragraphs raised many eyebrows. Wrote Olney:

"It's the sort of thing that is much more likely to happen in fantasy baseball than in real life, but according to sources, an idea has been kicked around the Phillies' organization internally, with discussions about proposing a swap of slugger Ryan Howard for St. Louis superstar Albert Pujols.

"It's not fully clear whether the Phillies actually have approached the Cardinals with the idea, and even if St. Louis were to seriously consider such an offer, executives with the Cardinals would have to swallow very hard before dealing Pujols, a player widely regarded as the best in the sport."

The mere speculation of a transaction of this magnitude became a prime topic for baseball fans who thrive on news of major trades. Although based on information from an anonymous source, the story had maximum credibility because it was penned by one of the sport's most respected and popular columnists.

Olney's account was pounced on by other media outlets, and the mailbag was no exception, as readers took him to task for seeming to give credence to what some thought to be an implausible trade: "Why is this a headline?" … "The least-sourced article in ESPN history" … "It doesn't even belong in the rumors section" … "Lazy journalism." Mailbag critics seemed disappointed that a columnist with a no-nonsense reputation was engaging in what they thought was hyperbole.

In a blog post the next day, Olney forcefully confronted the controversy he had ignited: "About the Howard/Pujols story: What was written was dead-on."

Attempting to clarify any misconceptions, Olney noted that he "did not write that there were ongoing discussions between the two teams. I did not write that the Cardinals had an inclination to deal Pujols. I did not write that the Phillies are looking to dump Ryan Howard. When you have confirmed information … and you know exactly who said what to whom … that is news."

Predictably, it was not good news in the Phillies' or Cardinals' locker rooms. Pujols' reaction was heated: "There's people, stupid, that like to write something when it's not the truth, and that's all I have to say about it." Similarly dismissive was Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr., who said "That's a lie. I don't know who you're talking to, but that's a lie." Howard was more sanguine, saying "I don't know anything about anything. I'm not focused on it."

Reporters are accustomed to their opinions eliciting testy responses -- it comes with the territory. And the testiness does not always bear any relationship to the truth of a claim. The principals responded in this case to what they perceived as a personal attack. To the players, rumors of a trade call into question their value to the team and can rupture their trust in their organization's commitment. They also can be interpreted as a lack of respect -- being the object of secret trade talks is deemed a major "dis" … and that's embarrassing.

"Buster's blog is a must-read for baseball fans, and he brings an insider's perspective to the game," Stiegman said. "This particular post was credible and informative, a newsworthy topic illustrating the inner workings and thought processes -- which sometimes include throwing ideas against the wall -- of a baseball front office. There was a subsequent misrepresentation and overstatement of the column by others that took it beyond what it was. This was a factual and interesting conversation piece, and the reporting was accurate."

Olney's entire column was based on his discussions with unnamed sources, yet the principals responded on the record, and that's generally the case. Because Amaro spoke for attribution, ESPN could use the headline "Phillies GM Denies Swap Talk". That gave the story far more credibility than had this just been the ruminations of a baseball analyst reflecting on unattributed conversations.

Responding directly to information gleaned from unnamed sources opens the door to a running argument with a series of sources that pay no price for their comments because the audience has no idea who they are. NASCAR's Kevin Harvick recently articulated that point of view, saying "If they're too chicken to give their name, don't put their quote in the paper. Anonymous sources are crap."

Confronted with accusations from unnamed sources, it's a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. What happens if you respond with a non-response? "No comment" suggests some guilt in the eyes of many fans. What if you say nothing? Ask Tiger Woods, who basically remained incommunicado for almost three months after a Thanksgiving night incident while charge after charge flew at him with no counterpunch. By the time he made a definitive statement on Feb. 19, most people had already formed opinions. Another problem in not responding is the audience's predisposition to believe the old dictum: Where there's smoke, there's fire.

Olney's column also brings into focus one of the more interesting aspects of the unnamed source dilemma: motivation. Why would someone leak this information? Does the source have an ax to grind? Is it someone trying to create dissension? Was it someone trying to curry favor with a reporter in hopes of future consideration? Or was it a case of a team floating a trial balloon, hoping to gauge public reaction?

Anonymity enables that speculation.

The agenda of anonymous sources is something reporters are supposed to consider. The Associated Press cautions that "When it's relevant, [the reporter must] describe the source's motive for disclosing the information." But how often is motivation deemed relevant enough to be included in a story? Often, it seems, the description of the source is the one that gives the most credence to the source's relative expertise … all without actually exposing identity.

There's no question that anonymous sources lead journalists to valuable information and that their motives can be pure -- to right an injustice, to call the public's attention to outrageous behavior, to correct dangerous situations, to shine a light on corruption. And there's also no question that sometimes, if the source is to avoid retribution, the only way this can be done is anonymously.

But they can also be used to further personal agendas that harm others, benefit the source and/or mislead the audience -- agents attempting to create a bidding war for their clients, players attempting to undermine their coaches, disgruntled or former employees seeking revenge, conferences attempting to poach new members, rivals looking to denigrate one another, etc.

"In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as anonymous sources," Doria said. "But the world isn't perfect, and the dangers are obvious. If an on-the-record source provides information that turns out to be wrong, the news organization is responsible -- but the individual who went on the record with that misinformation is going to bear the burden of being wrong.

"If the wrong information comes from an anonymous source, the news organization's reputation takes a much greater hit because [the organization] found the information credible while the source remains publicly unknown. And if that wrong information has damaging consequences, the news organization may well face legal repercussions."

Olney's trade story is another example in which only the reporter, and perhaps his editor, knows the sources of the information and their pedigrees. ESPN's policy requires the disclosure of sources to management, if requested, and the editor or producer is then bound by the same pledge to anonymity as the reporter. The subjects of Olney's column are dealing with anonymity from a totally different perspective. One can only imagine the heated internal discussions held by the Phillies and the Cardinals in an attempt to determine who might have been the source.

As to the repercussions and ultimate fallout, only time will tell.

All the Rumors fit to print

The mailbag gets periodic complaints about ESPN.com having a pay component (the premium Insider section). We addressed this issue in an earlier column, and some of you skewered me for appearing to support it. It seems as if anytime I'm not using Bristol as a punching bag or taking ESPN to the woodshed, some of you think I become a "mouthpiece for management" or a "sell-out" or a "turn-coat". But any discussion of unnamed sources can't be done without visiting Rumor Central (RC), which also allows a peek behind the veil at the workings of one of ESPN's boiler rooms.

A rumor by definition is gossip, denoted as "a statement in general circulation without confirmation or certainty of facts." Many rumors, however, have kernels of truth that, if properly verified, provide interesting or valuable information. Other than press releases and first-person accounts, almost all news starts with information from a source either named or unnamed. For the most part, RC lives in that gray area that is the genesis of much of the sports reporting today.

Living on ESPN.com, Rumor Central is a well-trafficked service of ESPN Insider that processes 125 to 150 stories a day, totaling close to 25,000 words. It's a must-scan for producers, writers and reporters who cover MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, college football and basketball. That's its core universe, and it draws from myriad sources: ESPN reporters, local newspaper reports, radio affiliates, sports blogs, college publications, national competitors -- both electronic and print -- and even tweets. It acts as a filter for all the relevant sports rumors out there.

The RC analysts spend their day trying to verify information, much of it from anonymous sources outside the company, and coordinate it with ESPN reporters to see whether it's consistent or conflicting -- there might be different interpretations of the facts. Nothing is dismissed as a possible source, but the less-established sources obviously require the most scrutiny. RC has no interest in off-the-field antics or personal peccadilloes. It's straight hard-core sports without the fluff.

"Our reporters like it," said Chris Sprow, a general editor with ESPN Insider who works on Rumor Central. "We can help them substantiate stories or shoot them down. It is meant to be a place where the fan who isn't satisfied with merely the final report on a story can bask in the minutiae. It's the place where we say, "Yes, we see all these rumors. Here they are -- we'll try to find out some new information. And yes, if it's pure BS, we're happy to say that, as well."

News, says Sprow, "is the battle of what you can confirm. There's no such thing as an unsubstantiated fact. For almost two months rumors floated around that Toronto pitcher Roy Halladay was being traded to half the teams in baseball. Finally we confirmed he was going to Philadelphia. Initially there was a rumor from an unnamed source that Donovan McNabb would be traded within the division. At first glance, it looked absolutely ridiculous. Ultimately we confirmed it as a substantiated fact."

If the trained eye looks at anonymous-sourced stories long enough, the fingerprints become recognizable.

"When certain outside reporters post something, I can almost tell you which agent it's coming from -- everybody has their guys," Sprow said. "We like to think we're more thorough. We're not in the market to just pretend something's true."

That thoroughness is reflected in how RC interacts with ESPN's other outlets. Rumor Central inherently informs the rest of the network's platforms by calling attention to stories that would be too numerous for any single person to follow.

One of ESPN's key players on the NFL beat is Adam Schefter, who has broken some of the sport's biggest stories. RC editors will call Schefter to check out a rumor they've picked up from a local beat reporter. Schefter might reject it as untrue or check with his sources. He could then confirm the story for the Web site, or it might lead him in a different direction that ends up with a scoop on "SportsCenter." Few reporters can work sources both named and anonymous better than Schefter, and he knows the importance of making sure the information is solid.

"A reporter's record speaks for itself," Schefter said. "I've been doing this for 20 years. Making the decision when you've confirmed a story enough is tough, but that's the peril of the job. You've got to know the people that you're dealing with. I keep mental files on the reliability of all my sources. The key is checking everything out -- and then checking again. The first thing I learned in grad school is if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. All these years later I've been fortunate enough to confirm and break stories on hirings, firings, trades, whatever … but I'm still checking on whether my mother loves me."

When reporters get burned by bad information, it damages their credibility. That's why good journalists are schizophrenic. They're cautious at the same they crave being the leader of the pack. They develop strong relationships with people in the know -- and their antennae are always attuned to agendas that can turn a delicious-sounding story into nothing more than fabulous fiction.

RC has gathered the rumors on ESPN.com for much of the past decade. About a year ago, the team started filtering and exposing the rumors that turn out not to be credible, as well. If a rumor circulating in the sports media universe isn't true, the story -- with its source -- is presented on RC and labeled "Debunked". The RC team then continues to update the report, showing the life cycle of the rumor.

The hope is that checking and contacting sources leads to finding the real story. So a sequence of headlines over a period of time might run the gamut from "Trades: Padres to Trade Adrian Gonzalez within a Week" to "Debunked: Olney: Gonzalez trade talks 'premature" to finally "Trades: Gonzalez could be dealt by July." Any story can be updated multiple times, based on ongoing reports.

In many ways, RC is the journalistic process in motion. The debunking aspect has a real value to the sports fan. It gives the reader a sense of how much anonymous-sourced material is out there. With so many tidbits of information flying around the ether each day, the fan is hard-pressed to know what's a fact, what's speculation and what's garbage. With the proliferation of rumors, it's often just as valuable to know what you can't trust as what you can. If done well, debunking can bring accountability to sources that play fast and loose with facts.

It might be interesting for Rumor Central to have a section that heightens accountability for ESPN's presumed experts who make their living predicting event outcomes. The "batting averages" for prognostications on football, the NCAA basketball tournament, horse racing or any other sport might be enlightening to the audience and put in perspective the true reliability of the pundits.

'Outside the Lines'

On May 5, OTL featured a story on Arizona's new immigration law, focused on its impact on local sports teams. It included lively debate and diverse points of views. One of the conversations featured New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is Hispanic and opposes the law, and senatorial candidate J.D. Hayworth (R), an Anglo who staunchly supports it. During one exchange with the governor, OTL host Bob Ley did what all good reporters should do but often don't:

Bill Richardson: "I'm not supporting boycotts against Arizona or Arizona sports teams, but I want to commend Major League Baseball and the Phoenix Suns for taking a position against this law that infringes on the rights of their potential Hispanic players that are going to be affected."

Bob Ley: "What has baseball done, governor?"

Richardson: "Major League Baseball put out a statement basically saying this is a bad law, it needs to be changed, it needs to be challenged …"

Ley: "I believe that was the union, sir, was it not? We haven't heard from the commissioner."

Richardson: "Well, whatever."

"Well, whatever"? I'm not sure that is the appropriate response when you're wrong, but I am sure that too often interviewers are thinking about their next question and not totally focused on what's being said in the moment. Even when listening, they sometimes aren't conversant enough with the subject matter to catch mistakes of fact that, though nuanced, can give the audience a faulty impression.

And even if they are, they don't always react quickly to correct an erroneous statement. Ley's attention to detail reinforced for viewers that the host was not only listening but prepared to challenge. That's a first-rate example of how interviews should be conducted.

Until next time …