Those of you that follow me on Twitter know that I have recently been railing against the cloud of misinformation surrounding the impending NBA free agency season. On the same day, anonymous sources will be the basis for reports that have LeBron James going to Miami, Chicago, and New York. Conflicting reports continue to emerge, with “sources familiar with his thinking” and “people in the industry with knowledge of the situation” popping up everywhere. With the insanity reaching a fever pitch this week, ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer chimed in on the use of 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…..
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…..
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.
I recommend reading the entire post, as Ohlmeyer discusses in detail the mechanics of using anonymous sources in trade rumor columns. As the trade deadline approaches and rumors begin to float, you will hear from many unnamed sources who believe the Yankees are willing to give up Jesus Montero, or value Romine more than Jesus, or have made Joba Chamberlain available and Andrew Brackman untouchable. But, as Ohlmeyer states, it is important to note that these sources always have a reason for revealing this information.
Agents and team executives like to muddy the waters through the press, so that each side seems like they have multiple suitors and can walk away from the table if they so choose. This leads to hundreds of false rumors that often go uncorroborated by members of the press and then are regurgitated for our consumption. Because the agenda of the source is unknown to us, the validity of the statements that they make is questionable, and should be taken as such. If something that such a source says seems extremely unlikely or too good to be true, it likely is. Do not believe everything you read, and be skeptical of that which you hear until a source puts their name on it. Otherwise, you are likely to be chasing false rumors until the trade deadline passes.
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