Questioning Ethics – Verifying The Anonymous

For this week’s analysis, I rummaged through several articles from a variety of sources before landing on an interesting investigation led by iMediaEthics’ editor-in-chief Rhonda Roland Shearer on the media’s coverage of Egypt. You can find her investigation here.

What I found most intriguing was the article entitled, “NY Times Never Called Me! Anonymous Sources, Fact Check Failures Rule in Egypt, Analysis reveals.” Shearer reports that The New York Times reporting out of Egypt has used several unnamed sources. According to Shearer, many of these anonymous sources are more than just unnamed but unverified. She says many of the sources were never even interviewed. iMediaEthics links to a variety of articles like this one which contain sources who were not even contacted. The investigation contains emails, infographics and a bullet point analysis of the information covered. It’s quite extensive and a little alarming.

While anonymous sources are surely useful and sometimes required, they should definitely exist. There is no integrity or fairness in naming individuals who have not been interviewed. The Associated Press requires that anonymous sources can only be used if: “1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report. 2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source. 3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.” The guidelines further elaborate on the practices of including an anonymous source by requiring there be attribution and the reason why the source wanted to be left nameless.

To think that it is possible that The New York Times could essentially fake anonymous sources is crazy and unthinkable. Now, if this is completely true and accurate, then it definitely bends to one extreme. It would appear that the care towards verifying and truly interviewing sources was not there, which seems wrong because in the end – how accurate is that information and where did it come from?

Applying the golden mean form of ethics would mean to avoid the extremes, to avoid the excess. This might be an example of being too rash and thinking that no one would question the sources or legitimacy of the material. Maybe it’s an example of too much pride, but whatever the case may be it definitely borders on questionable. Who knows what the reasons may have been, maybe there are reasons but if there were any then they should have been included and explained.

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2 thoughts on “Questioning Ethics – Verifying The Anonymous

  1. Maybe this is an example of trusting who was providing the anonymous information, instead of attempting to verify or reach out to the sources themselves. I wonder where the Times got the information to begin with? Our reading this week talked about this, using the example of a reporter trusting the official source, a police report for example, without reaching out to the individuals involved. Like you mention at the end, this is a transparency issue. If there was a good reason for not verifying these sources, then it should have been disclosed. Or further it should have been made clear where this information was coming from. This is also a failure of one of the fundamental aspects of journalism, verification.

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  2. Thanks for the discussion of iMediaEthics’s work, Kareya. I read the piece about the Times that you link to and discuss. She certainly raises some interesting issues and questions, but I also found the article confusing. I’m not sure how she determined that sources quoted anonymously in the Times in fact were never interviewed by the paper. The article also raised questions in my mind about Shearer’s background and loyalties. That prompted a search for articles about her and iMediaEthics. Here’s an interesting one by a Cairo-based correspondent: http://www.cjr.org/criticism/government_fact_checkers_and_language.php. All of which leaves me wanting to learn more about Kirkpatrick’s use of anonymous sources — but also about Shearer’s collaboration with the Egyptian government.

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