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.