The New York Times and I didn’t collude, a couple of weeks ago, when we both published, on the same day, indictments of anonymous sources. The issue of abuses of anonymity, both big and small, is gaining broad traction in the industry.

The Times – in an open note signed by editors Dean Baquet, Matt Purdy and Phil Corbett – stated:

“The use of anonymous sources is sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers. … The use of anonymous sources presents the greatest risk in our most consequential, exclusive stories. But the appearance of anonymous sources in routine government and political stories, as well as many other enterprise and feature stories, also tests our credibility with readers.”

This memo at The New York Times cautions journalists there to avoid unnecessary use of anonymous sources.

This memo from editors cautions New York Times journalists to avoid the unnecessary use of anonymous sources.

The misuse of anonymous sources has been an issue repeatedly harped upon by The Times’ soon-to-be-former public editor Margaret Sullivan. The point was punctuated recently by two front-page errors caused by such poorly sourced journalism. Esquire magazine dubbed the problem source pollution.

This degradation of journalistic sourcing is not just an issue in contemporary New York. Hawaii, among other places, also is being sullied; and the varieties of this problem are many.

When Anonymous Sources Were Rare

First, though, let’s provide some industry context, courtesy of journalism historian Matt J. Duffy. Duffy – in a scholarly article published in American Journalism in 2014 – made the case that despite numerous scandals caused from the 1980s to the 2000s by the use of anonymous sources, the journalism industry has been relaxing its standards even more in recent years, rather than tightening them — despite rhetoric otherwise.

Cases exist in which anonymous sources are essential for journalism to prosper – such as in matters of military malfeasance, as in the release of the Pentagon Papers. But most of the time, such source veiling is unwarranted.

Duffy noted that a few columnists did incorporate anonymous sources in the first half of the 20th century, but, through studying journalism texts as far back as 1907, he found that the practice generally was not acknowledged in the industry until the 1950s, when it was initially classified as “quite rare.”

With the scandals and controversies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War and Watergate uncovered by journalists in the 1960s and 1970s, often with the help of anonymous sources, journalistic institutions began to loosen their restrictions, despite the significant risks.

About Those ‘Weapons Of Mass Destruction’

How bad could this possibly turn out for you, my dear reader? The New York Times still deserves scorn for its failures, more than a decade ago, to not rein in reporter Judith Miller, and others, circulating anonymous rumors about “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. That faulty reporting led to an eruption of war and discontent in the Middle East that likely will continue for decades. That kind of colossal screw-up should not be forgotten.

Yet I want to emphasize, in the rest of this column, how the haphazard use of anonymous sources leads to other, even more insidious assaults on journalistic ideology.

People with low media literacy, for example, might tend to think that Facebook is a news source, rather than a news aggregator. The remark “I read on Facebook …” might be intended to give what follows it a sort of gravitas; but actually, such a distinction has no qualitative meaning. It could indicate a link to a reliable source. Or it might not. Saying I “read on Facebook …,” in other words, should not be an equivalent to saying “I read in The Star-Advertiser.” Yet sometimes, it is meant that way.

On the same day The Times and I were writing about concerns with anonymous sources, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser published a Gregg K. Kakesako story about slack-key guitar player and singer Cyril Pahinui undergoing surgery for a collapsed lung. Where did the Star-Advertiser get this information? On Facebook. Really!

Let’s not get sidetracked by the news judgment issue here, in which Pahinui’s health status probably wasn’t of statewide breaking-news significance for a variety of reasons, including the second-paragraph statement that “Cyril’s surgery has been completed and he is not in critical condition as we begin the healing process.”

Links On Facebook Can Come From Anywhere

What the state’s largest media organization reported was simply a summary and repackaging of information from an anonymous author on Pahinui’s Facebook page (since presumably the musician was too ill to be posting the texts himself, and the posts are written from a third-person perspective). So who was this mystery source? And what do we know about the veracity of these posts?

Reportedly, a “message on the 65-year-old Hawaiian musician’s page” earlier in the day had said the “surgery would begin at 11 a.m. and take about two hours.” What followed included: “Our prayers and gratitude go out to our master surgeon Dr. Chug who spent his morning visiting with us to the tunes of Ledward and my dad Gabby. Also, to a most wonderful friend and Dr. Joana Magno who has watched over every detail of my care here at the Queen’s Medical Center.”

This all seems like information that might make perfect sense in the context of a social media channel, for those who care about the details of Pahinui’s health.

But then came this section of the Star-Advertiser story: “As a result of his service in Vietnam on the front lines artillery Cyril was heavily exposed to several chemicals including agent orange. This exposure has impacted his lungs and heart for many years. And although he quit over 10 years ago smoking certainly did not help. At this time, Cyril’s right lung has collapsed and the lining filled with fluids.”

How accurate is this information, since Cyril (unless he writes in third-person) doesn’t appear to be writing it? What is the journalist’s role in the dissemination of this information? And can you think of a few follow-up questions a journalist might want to ask when such information is presented? Without any significant participation here by writer Kakesako, what journalistic value is added?

If Facebook, in this case, is being used as a public relations channel (which I would argue it is), then this Star-Advertiser story essentially is just reprinting the press release. Such journalism, as described by The New York Times’ editors, tests the credibility of the publication with its readers. It reflects poorly on the Star-Advertiser, in terms of distinguishing itself as an independent news source, and it reflects poorly on the state of journalism in Hawaii.

That piece about Pahinui is not Watergate, of course. It is not “weapons of mass destruction.” Yet it is something – through its shielding of anonymous-source use – to behold in horror; yes, the largest local media source is now resorting to, “I read on Facebook …”

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.