The Role of Reporters’ Judgment
A question from the audience elicited discussion about whether there can ever be truly “independent sources.” The whole notion of independent sources, this questioner posed to the journalists, “is an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or educational TV.” “Is there,” he wanted to know, “such a thing as an independent source?”
What follows are excerpts from the Watchdog conference that were either made in direct reply to this question or emerged out of other related discussions:
William Rashbaum: “There’s no way to maintain complete independence from your sources and still be really effective as a watchdog. But I think that we have to continually work to limit our dependence. And I think we have to do that in obvious ways, such as having many, many sources over as wide a range of areas and disciplines as possible, sources at the top of institutions as well as at the bottom in the trenches. Read absolutely everything you can get your hands on so you become as expert and knowledgeable about the area that you are covering, and just use your eyes, ears, and mind, rather than relying on what you’ve been told.”
Murrey Marder: “No, there is no such thing as an independent source, and the first thing a reporter should ask himself when he is talking to anyone whom he thinks may be a source is, ‘Why is this source talking to me? What is in it for him?’ First, I have to find out what is in it for him before I find what is in it for me….
“Now, some source may be discovered one day in Washington who comes in virginal robes and with a halo. But I certainly have never encountered him and I would never assume that any source is telling me the whole truth, because I don’t think the source knows the whole truth….
“I work from a premise which may be old-fashioned, and I hope it will become new-fashioned: that the source I am talking to does not know everything about the subject he’s talking about. Second, if he knows a great deal about it, why is he talking to me, and what is his point of view, and why is he selling it to me?”
“With all the emphasis we have given to sources [at this conference], it may very well create the impression that the reporter functions best when he is collecting information from various people. I would say on the contrary, he’s functioning best when he’s collecting information from various people and thinking it through for himself. I know of no solid story that I’ve ever written that was simply drawn from either a single individual or even a group of individuals. It’s something that I had to piece together in my own mind, with my own resources, essentially, and present in that way.”
Loretta Tofani: “No one really had an overview of the jail system, a system that didn’t work. Everybody had a limited view and some people just had plain incorrect knowledge, and so it was really my task to try to make the view complete and make all these different parts see why the other parts weren’t working.”
Roy Gutman: “The only way that a reporter could sort out what was really going on [with Serbian atrocities in Bosnia] and hope to be at all factual was to find real people who were real victims and ask them to speak. It’s kind of anathema to a lot of us who cover governments, who are diplomatic reporters, to go to individuals who have suffered. And I think back to Loretta’s story, going to victims and to criminals. Frankly, [going to talk with victims] gave me a sense of independence [because] I acquired enough of a database in my head or in my notebooks. I would talk to one person alone, fresh, for as long as it took to get the entire story. Then I would start checking it out with other people, independently. I would not go to anybody who had been interviewed by any other reporter. I was able to put together my own picture that way. Through that I was able to build up a record of what the crimes were, and there was nobody who could gainsay me at the end of the day because I was convinced it was true. And it just turned out that the facts were correct. Few reporters used that method. So I think there is a way that we can have our independence and do our stories and be confident of them.” ... “It strikes me that we shouldn’t be looking for independent sources but for independent judgment. It has to come from journalists. Look at Loretta’s story: Who was the independent source there who gave her the full picture? She put together sources, going in fact finally to the perpetrators, the criminals themselves, and so her story became the independent source and her work became the independent facts. There was no single source who could put her in the picture…. The only independence has to come from us.”
Susanne M. Schafer: “This is the essence of journalism. The difference between the Internet and what we’d like to think of as solid journalism is judgment calls.”
Lars-Erik Nelson: “I don’t have to be independent of my sources. I am a columnist; I find people who will help me or people whose stories intrigue me, and I can advocate their cause for them. So I have less need to keep independent of somebody’s agenda than a straight news reporter….”
“[When I covered Prague in the early 1970’s], for all that they were wonderful democratic people fighting the good fight for freedom, they had their petty intrigues and their romances and their conspiracy theories and they would take things too far and would over-dramatize them. You’d have to say [to them], ‘Look, I’m basically on your side. You don’t own me, but I’m basically on your side. However, I am not your mouthpiece.’ And you do have to keep that distance, even when you know they’re fighting the heroic struggle.”
“There’s certainly no pure independence, but there is relative independence of a source…. There are academics who don’t have a financial interest in the situation who have relatively greater independence on a story than, say, if it’s an arms control story, than an arms manufacturer or a diplomat or somebody whose livelihood depends upon the situation. You can find people who do have a distance and who do not have the financial stake and that gives them a relative independence.”
Mark Thompson: “True independence is impossible, and I think Lars’s suggestion of relative independence definitely has its merits.”
David Barstow: “By gathering at every step as many stupid documents as we could possibly find—old agendas, old budgets, anything and everything under the sun—we wouldn’t become the dumb reporter scraping for the most basic information. Actually we would become an authority. We would become so knowledgeable about the inner workings of this entity [the National Baptist Convention] and the political jockeying among the various players who were trying to wrestle control of this organization away from the president that we could come with our questions from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness with these folks.… This is an organization whose public relations director’s main purpose was to try to have us arrested at every turn and not give us any information whatsoever.”
Byron Acohido: “We’re dealing in a complicated society, trying to cover complicated sources under deadline and competitive pressures, and what Murrey Marder said really rings true: The best thing we can do [in the midst of reporting on these stories] is to pause and think. I’m a believer in public service journalism, in serving the readers…and my belief is that what we can bring to bear on behalf of the readers is our intelligence, the ability to sift all this stuff and at the end of the day connect the dots and help the readers make sense of it.”
In reporting the TWA 800 story for The Seattle Times, Acohido began to suspect that “politics” were at work in how the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) acted as sources for this story. Each organization acted as a key source—and usually an unnamed source—for reporters at selected newspapers. Acohido surmises that the FBI provided its information to The New York Times; NTSB worked closely with reporters at The Washington Post. And, as always happens with stories about airline crashes, the corporation who built the plane also wanted to provide reporters with “its spin.”
“[The FBI and NTSB] had different agendas for different reasons and wanted to put out different spins. What happened was really amazing. These two leading publications, chasing these two competing spins, drove the coverage….it happens at every crash that you get red herrings and the only entity that benefits from these red herrings is the corporation. [On] July 27th, an unnamed source tells The Washington Post the center tank was 20 degrees too cool. That’s Boeing all the way. That’s their corporate product liability lawyers. That’s wrong, dead wrong. They know that’s wrong, but they still plant it.”
“[As the story continued] it was bomb, bomb, bomb. Every story was about this bomb for months, which turned out wrong.”
James McNair: “This is where I have a problem with the motives of sources. In 15 years on the business desk, I have to say that reporters’ independence is under attack constantly by corporations that aim to have news slanted in a certain way, if not ignored altogether…. Material gains await a reporter who’s going to go bad any day, but payoffs often arrive in more latent and unexpected ways. I remember once Volvo, out of the blue, I didn’t even cover Volvo or auto manufacturing, called me up and asked me if I wanted to test drive some new car for a week…. I took a pass, but one of the sportswriters jumped on that one. It was a pretty good drive….
“But business reporters give away their independence most often without accepting any forms of gratis or good will that shows in their stories. These are often nothing more than rewrites of a corporate press release, which is a carefully crafted, heavily lawyered statement, notorious for its omissions and distractions. Emphasis is often placed on so-called operating earnings that don’t take into account the cost for plant shutdowns or inventory write-offs that in my book have everything to do with operations. But many reporters who are thrust on the business desk without any financial training don’t know any better, and when corporations speak of ‘rationalization of operations,’ reporters don’t always know to ask, ‘How many workers are going to be laid off?’ When corporations hire investment bankers who examine options to enhance shareholder value, that item might be buried or omitted in the story when it’s probably the lead: The company is for sale.”
John McQuaid: Investigation of global fisheries. “Ultimately we wrote a story which basically no segment or source would totally agree with, neither the regulators nor the fishermen, but which I think described the situation pretty accurately….”