Friday, 11 July 2003

Lies by anonymous sources

If there’s a common thread in the various “Bush lied” stories about the war, it is that the initial, wildly overoptimistic reports were generally based on interviews with anonymous sources. For example, in last month’s Washington Post semi-retraction of its reporting on the events that lead to Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s capture, the paper describes its initial reports as follows:

Initial news reports, including those in The Washington Post, which cited unnamed U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports, described Lynch emptying her M-16 into Iraqi soldiers. The intelligence reports from intercepts and Iraqi informants said that Lynch fought fiercely, was stabbed and shot multiple times, and that she killed several of her assailants.

“She was fighting to the death,” one of the officials was quoted as saying. “She did not want to be taken alive.”

Now, assuming the initial reports weren’t written by Jayson Blair or someone seeking to emulate his behavior at the New York Times, these “unnamed U.S. officials” must exist. More importantly, the reporters who quoted them know who they are. A full and honest accounting of events, whether in the Post and elsewhere, ought to identify who these officials are.

The practice of the media taking information on background in important stories has become disturbingly widespread. If newspapers want their reports that rely on anonymous sources to be trusted, there must be some clear sanction for dishonesty by people speaking on background—just as there is when the source is not anonymous (namely, damage to the credibility of the source). A journalist’s responsibility to the truth, and to her readers, must outweigh any obligation of anonymity to a source who has clearly lied or deceived the public.