• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, April 28, 2013

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Following-up on what I wrote about here last week:

Where the media-in-general got into Big Time Trouble (read that: MISTAKES) in covering the Boston Marathon bombings was the over-use of unnamed sources. A very high percentage of "breaking news" and "exclusive" reports were based on anonymous sources. And, as we saw and heard, many of them did not have the true facts.

Anyone experienced in reporting on such an event should know the most-informed source of information comes from the top or those in charge. In Boston, the FBI quickly assumed jurisdictional command, and that meant the local police instantly became the least in-the-loop source. Sure, there's something to be said for "local knowledge," but when the feds take over, they husband the information. People like CNN's embarrassed and discredited John King should have known that. But, if you look back, you'll see how many of these inaccurate reports cited "local law enforcement sources." 

It was like cocktail party chatter: One person tells something to someone else, who tells another as if he/she were the one in the original "know," and it just keeps spreading. The second "source" really possessed no facts, just ears to hear what someone else said, and a mouth (and ego) to repeat it as if gospel.

I'll also bet you that when "federal" sources were mentioned in Boston stories, that meant congressional staffers. Honest and experienced reporters should understand people in this group often don't know anything happening outside their own office, always have their own agenda, and are usually looking to grease the path for a better job. The bad info that comes from congressional staffers is legendary and journos who went with this clearly don't know the business very well.

I wrapped last week by saying the sports journalism community is affected by the same problems as their news-side friends. Even a casual review of NASCAR reporting of recent years shows the trend toward the more sensational, the showbiz dramatic, get-it-out-first (and, in some cases by certain people), hope it turns out to be right. Social media has come to play a big role in this. I can tell you from first-hand conversations some of these press pass holders are obsessed with how many Twitter followers they have and that leads to shoving out stuff without proper verification.

Back when I started at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1974, the rule -- and this included sports -- was for at least two separate, and independent from one another, sources. Three were better. Well, that standard is as out-of-date in current journalism as a fountain pen. Far too often, one person saying one thing to one reporter is considered good enough to go with.

Therefore, you -- as a news consumer -- must be aware of whose byline is on the report. Has that person proven to be accurate over a significant time? Or a rumor repeater? Someone actually out there talking to the newsmakers or just copying off press releases and pit notes? Does he or she give an indication of the "quality" of the source? Warning: sourcing from a "garage area insider" is not sufficient for comfort. Sourcing from a driver, car owner, crew chief, track operator or other significant player is much better -- and believable.

It's all about who you can trust and who has credibility.

Full disclosure: I've been an anonymous source for racing stories many, many times over multiple decades. I understand the game, having been on both sides of the competitor/media fence. My own policy that applies to anything I report here or in other outlets is this: I only go hard with information from a single source if I know, for sure, that source has direct and first-hand knowledge of the situation. If not, or I'm not convinced, I've got to have at least one other source and independent of the first.

Yes, go ahead, call me old-fashioned.

But before believing what you read or hear, please do yourself a favor, and consider the source. The sad reality is not enough journalists these days do so.

[ more next Monday . . . ]