Saturday, May 20, 2017

The "Anonymous Source" Game

I've seen a lot of people on Twitter fussing and fuming about the "anonymous sources" cited in Washington Post and New York Times articles regarding the Trump-Russia investigation. They seem to think that because a source is unnamed, it makes that source less credible.

As someone who has been in the journalistic profession for 27 years, I'm stepping outside the intended audience for this blog -- fellow journalists -- to those of you who are NOT journalists and who do not understand how this works. Hopefully, this insight will clear up a few misconceptions. And if not, at least I've put pen to paper to explain how "The Anonymous Source Game" works.

Now in case you don't believe that I know what I'm talking about ... I spent 12 years in mainstream newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina as a reporter and editor. I also spent four years covering Pennsylvania state politics in the Capitol for The Associated Press as a Newswoman. For the past 15 years, I have been a solo freelancer, writing for a variety of military, business and health publications. When I was with the AP, I covered the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as well as the state Department of Education and the state Public Utility Commission during the deregulation of the electric industry.

So I know a thing or two when it comes to "anonymous sources."

Let me explain how this worked, using my experience with the AP in a highly-charged political environment. Let's pretend you are an AP reporter in the Pennsylvania statehouse.

So the day starts this way:

You come into the newsroom with your coffee, and the phone rings. It's a staff member for a state representative with a tip about a plan to secretly railroad an unpopular bill through the Legislature. The staff member says explicitly: "This is not for you to quote me. I am giving this to you anonymously. I just want you to know what is going on."

Now it's up to you as the reporter to ferret out whether this is true.

So you go downstairs to the press spokesman for the House Majority Leader and ask if it's true. He flatly asks where you heard the rumor, and you demure. He says he cannot confirm or deny it, but you could ask the committee chairman where the bill is currently sitting.

Now how are you going to get the story? You don't want to go to the committee chairman, because the second he knows you're onto it, he could impede your reporting. Before you hit him for an answer, you have to go to some more anonymous sources.

Using the information that the caller gave you while your coffee was getting cold, you start calling other press officers for other representatives. You find that no one wants to go on the record, because this bill is so controversial. But you give each person details that the caller gave you, asking if they can confirm or deny those details.

The reaction is always the same: "Where did you hear that?" You don't reveal where you heard it, but you ask for confirmation of whether it's true. Each person says, "Yes it's true, but I don't want you to use my name." You follow up with more questions, and each person adds more "meat" to the skeleton. With that "meat," you have more detail to ask MORE people about the bill. As you add more meat to that skeleton, each person who is subsequently interviewed confirms it. Or they may say, "Well, that is partially correct, but there is a little more you should know so that you have the full context." And then they may "correct" some of the story, all the while adding more details that you didn't know.

This process usually takes one to two hours, depending on how much the original source wants to bury the story and hide it from the public.

Now you have your ammunition. When you get a minimum of three independent confirmations, even though they are anonymous, you can feel confident that it's a story. I usually did not stop with three. I often went above and beyond and took the interviews to the next level, pushing for more detail.

All of these people are ANONYMOUS. But all of them have each independently VERIFIED information that started with a phone call. And all of them have also given you information that MATCHES the phone caller's tip, even though they are not talking to each other, and even though all of them do not know where you got the tip.

At this point, you go to the committee chairman. You ask about the bill, and he denies that anything is happening. "Where did you hear that?" (They always ask that question before they answer.) Again, you decline to respond and press on with the information that you know.

In that moment, the committee chairman always does the same thing. He turns white. He goes silent. He thinks for a few seconds. If he threatens you that you will be running with false information if you print it, then you say, "Well, these anonymous sources all confirmed it. Would you like to provide your version of the story so that it is fair and balanced?"

Boom. He will spill in that moment, because he doesn't want the story to go out without his words represented.

This is how anonymous sourcing works. It is a tool of the journalistic trade to unearth information that public officials want to hide from their constituents. It is very effective, and it is done with great care and thought. I never ran with a story that had one "anonymous" person. I always confirmed, reconfirmed and reconfirmed again. I always went through the process that I have outlined above.

And my editors never would have printed a story unless they were certain that I was damn sure it was 100 percent correct. At a minimum, we had to have three sources to cross-confirm each other's versions -- all of whom were not talking to each other, and all of whom did not know who the others were.

The Anonymous Source Game. Next time someone (*cough* *cough* *cough* Donald Trump or Sean Spicer) says a story can't be confirmed because of "anonymous sources," just remember the process I went through as a reporter. And I wasn't even on the national stage. I was in one state, just one cog in the media machine wheel.

If I went through those machinations, you can be certain that reporters at the Times and Post have also.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

CYA in Trump's "Dishonest Media" Climate

So when I was a sprightly, ruddy-faced child out of college, my late father imparted some wisdom that has governed my career. And to paint this scene fully, my dad looked, acted and sounded like Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Ship Enterprise (no, that's not a joke).

When he wanted to have a "serious" discussion with me, he'd call me over to the dining room table, and I would sit expectantly and silently and wait for him to clear his throat.

"Cover your ass."

Now this made me sit up in my chair a little, because my dad was a pastor, and wow, that one was a shocker.

"What did you say, Dad???"

"Cover. Your. Ass. It's the only way you're going to make it in today's world. And you know how you do that? You keep handwritten notes on everything, and you keep them in this nice file ..."

(at this point, he pulled out a prepared manila file folder, on which he had very neatly written, "Heidi's CYA File") ...

"You keep them in this nice file, and then when anybody tries to say they didn't tell you what they really told you or tries to say you misunderstood or tries to say that you ... sorry, kid, but I have to use this language ... that you 'fucked up,' then you pull out your file here. And you put your notes, that are dated, and you say, 'Oh no. I think you're mistaken.' And after anyone tells you something, if it's your boss, you send them a note explaining what you think you heard, and you date it, and you put it in an office CYA folder, too."

You know what, my dad died 26 years ago, about four years after that little speech, and I have implemented his CYA advice every day.

Which brings me to today's sermon for you, my fellow journalists:

In today's manic environment ,where we have a sitting U.S. President that is churning public opinion against the free press, COVER. YOUR. ASS.

Since Trump took office, I have started to see a disconcerting trend among people I interview for stories, especially if they are affiliated with the U.S. government in some manner. They are starting to accuse me of misquoting them or misrepresenting what they actually said.

Now understand this. I've been doing this job for 27 years, and I type as I interview people at a conversational rate. I average about 80 words per minute.

But even with my lickety-split typing skills, when I saw how Trump was attacking "the dishonest media," I decided to go one step further. I started asking for people to answer questions via email. This is a common practice nowadays among slap-dash, green journalists, and for the most part, I disagree with it. I think it's lazy. I much prefer phone conversations.

However.

Trump has shifted the sands in our profession by accusing us of making things up.

The best way to "cover my ass" in this environment is to request emailed interview responses, when I am interviewing someone who is connected to his administration.

I'll give you one example, something that happened recently. (I will not name the government agency for my own reasons.)

About a month ago, I did a story for a university publication and had to interview top researchers across the country on a particular issue. I included a top official at this government entity. And following my newly self-imposed "CYA Rule," I asked for the interview answers to be submitted via email. This person did, and I lifted the quotes directly from the email and plugged them into the appropriate and pertinent areas of the story.

This week, I approached the person's press representative for a second interview, this time for another magazine. It was on the same topic but for a wholly different audience.

The press person responded that when she fact checked the first story, she had to change several things before sending the story back to the editor. (We can discuss fact checking policies in another blog entry.) In a terse and condescending email, she demanded to see the final story before she agreed to the source's participation. The inference was that I had taken comments out of context or misrepresented the individual.

Not to be cowed, I fired back a response. Would she like to clarify what was miscommunicated, precisely? I explained that I had requested emailed responses and had not changed a word of the responses that were emailed. I further explained that I had the original email to cross compare to any "issues" that she saw in the story.

And I copied my editor.

The press person responded several hours later, that she would agree to the source's participation. She did not follow up to my questions about where I had misquoted or misinterpreted or miscommunicated the source in the first story.

Cover. Your. Ass.

I don't know if this person's attitude was in any way, shape or form affected by the current Presidential administration's stance on the free press in the United States of America. But I do know that years ago, my late father gave me advice in his Jean-Luc-Picard-no-nonsense-voice, and I listened.

And now I'm telling you.

Cover your ass in this climate. Keep copious notes. And if anyone challenges your reporting, refer back to those emailed answers and say, "Oh. I quoted this word for word, the email that YOU sent me. Where exactly is the issue?"

Chances are, they'll back down without another word on it.

As for my inclusion of this source in this next story? I'm skipping her. I have plenty of other sources to fill it out, and I don't need her. Her press representative is too much trouble, and frankly, I have more important things to do than worry about covering my ass again when the story comes out in two months.

I just can't be bothered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Response to Trump's "Dishonest Media" Charge

For months, I have largely kept silent while Donald J. Trump has maligned my profession and my colleagues as, quote, "the dishonest media."

But this morning, I need to say a few things about that, and it's largely drawn from a personal realization about my own career. Since 1989, I have been either a news reporter, news editor, AP staffer or freelance magazine journalist. Over 27 years, in one way or another, I have been part of what is now being unfairly labeled, "the dishonest media."

Today started like most days. I had two magazine interviews right out of the gate, and they were with researchers at a large university. The topic was about ground-breaking discoveries this university is making in the field of opiate addiction.

As I hung up from the second interview a few moments ago, the researcher said to me, "Thank you for doing this story. We are so grateful."

And that's when it hit me: The one thing that has driven me for nearly three decades in my career is that I have attacked every single story with the goal of making the world a better place.

Do I sound like a Pollyanna to you? No matter. Let me give you a few examples so that you know I know what I'm talking about:


  • When I covered child abuse stories as a news reporter, I was criticized for capitalizing on the suffering of innocent children. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on the evil being perpetrated. I saw it as an opportunity for teachers to know how to spot warning signs of abuse. I saw it as a chance for moms and dads to also be aware of potential abuse among people they trusted -- Scout leaders, youth pastors, the list goes on. I saw it as a way to make people aware to safeguard future potential victims.
  • When I covered political corruption, I was criticized (often) for being biased, for causing trouble where none was present, for stirring waters of dissent and hurting elected officials. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on those in power who were abusing their roles. I saw it as a chance to show regular citizens how they could get involved with their government and be informed about ways their government was not serving them. I saw my role as a checkmate on the chess board.
  • When I covered tragedies like fires where children were burned alive, I was criticized for yellow journalism, for being a heartless money-grubber seeking headlines. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on fire prevention. I saw it as a way for poor people to know why they shouldn't use space heaters and why it was important to have a working smoke alarm in your house. I saw it as a way to save lives.
  • When I cover any topic relating to the military, I am sometimes criticized for giving credence to the nation's violent past. However, I see it as a way to shine a spotlight on the role that veterans have played in preserving our freedom. I see it as an opportunity to help military families make connections between PTSD and issues that are plaguing their families and children. I see it as a chance to make their lives a little bit better with information shared by pediatricians, psychiatrists, social workers. I see it as a way to help military members find jobs after they have served our country. The list goes on.
Dishonest media?

Really?

Tell me how we are being dishonest. My colleagues may be unveiling information that makes you uncomfortable or that makes you wince or that makes you want to get on with the rest of your day in comfort. My colleagues may be questioning someone that you idolize and who you don't want to be questioned, because perhaps that might indicate you made a wrong choice in the voting booth. My colleagues may be reporting both sides of an issue so that everyone gets a fair shot at expressing their views.

But do not, for one second, call us "the dishonest media."

We got into this business for one reason: To make the world a better place.

If that's dishonest to you, then maybe it's time to visit the dictionary and get acquainted with what dishonesty really is.