In January, the Nieman Foundation, the Institute of Politics, and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, convened an orientation session for new Washington reporters at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The objective of the two-day seminar was to provide a forum in which they could gain knowledge from veteran reporters and Washington experts, who came as guests, and discuss with them approaches to their new beats. In a session called “Ethics in Journalism,” Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, spoke with these reporters. Their remarks touched on interactions between journalists and sources and how those affect the quality of news that members of the public receive. In March, their new book, “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” will be published by Crown Publishers.
Bill Kovach: If we’re going to live as we are in a world of supply and demand, then journalists had better find a way to create a demand for goodjournalism. The way you do that is to help the public understand what principles set you apart from gossipmongers and propaganda…in order that your work sets what you do apart from what Rush Limbaugh and others like him are doing. That’s not journalism; it’s a form of communication.
So with that notion, let me just share with you an experience I had when I went to Washington as chief of the Washington bureau [of The New York Times] and tell you what I think was the most important lesson I learned in the eight years I was in that job. I’m certain it’s true today and maybe even truer now than it was then.
Jody Powell, who was President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, said it best when the President thought that because a southerner now was in charge of The New York Times bureau in Washington that the Carter administration might get a little better treatment from the Washington press. I understood some of it. He had me over to the White House and we talked about the relationship between the bureau and the White House. Jodie was there, and he interrupted President Carter and said, “But Mr. President, you don’t understand. There will always be conflict between them and us because we use information to try to lead people where Sources: Have Journalists Ceded Control? For the public to be well served, transparency is crucial. we want them to go, and they use information just to inform. And those are two goals that are in dynamic tension all day, every day.”
The journalist’s primary responsibility is to provide citizens with the information they need. You are just trying to take information from sources and put it into a form that’s useful to a citizen, who can go either way on the subject. And if you’re not in control of the situation then you tend to get frustrated, and you tend to overstate things you don’t know. Or you’re going to be controlled by the information, and you don’t want to be in either of those positions. You want to be in control of the information that you’re providing to your viewers.
Tom Rosenstiel: We have come to recognize that sources—those who want to manipulate members of the press—are gaining the upper hand in their relationships with journalists today, particularly in Washington. One reason is pretty simple: More news outlets are chasing a static number of sources. It’s a supply and demand situation. It’s a seller’s market for the information, and a growing number of us doing the chasing have more varied standards about what is news and what is not than we should have.
In Washington today, a story will get leaked to you. Within two or three days, if that story isn’t in the paper or on the air the way the source wanted it, then you’ll get a call berating you, or the source will go down the street and leak it to somebody who will air it on their terms. This doesn’t happen every once in a while. It happens on a regular basis. People over at The New York Times were telling me about how a source called back and said, “What the hell are you doing? I gave you that story four days ago.”
Another key issue in terms of dealing with sources is how anonymity is used. Who is being served when you go off the record and when you go on the record? Is that something that you as a journalist are offering to the source as a way of coaxing more information out of them, or is that something that they’re using to set the terms of the interaction with you? Be mindful of who determines the ground rules and also whether you have to agree. Is there another way to get the information? What would happen if you said to the person, “No, I need it on the record”? Would they really walk away or would they agree? Today in Washington you’ll find situations where you’ll agree to go on background and then you read the same quote by the same person on the record in another publication that same day. You realize that that other reporter just didn’t have to agree, and this also happens on an everyday basis in Washington.
What are you granting a source the anonymity for? That is another key question. Walter Mears, a long-time Associated Press reporter, said he can’t believe how often anonymity is being given to political campaign surrogates to anonymously attack an opponent. He said it would have been unthinkable when he was coming up that a journalist would allow a press secretary or spin doctor or campaign consultant to go on background and say, “Well this just proves that Governor Bush doesn’t really understand foreign policy,” or, “This just proves that Al Gore, once again, can’t tell the truth.” There are some journalists in Washington who actually have rules.
Deborah Howell at Newhouse newspapers says one of the rules in her bureau is that you are not allowed to use an anonymous source to offer an opinion about another person. Somebody wants to provide you with factual information that you can independently verify, that’s one thing; using an anonymous source to attack somebody, to offer spin on somebody, what’s the justification? She also has another rule that is interesting. The first quote in the story cannot be an anonymous quote. These things are not designed to say, you know, it’s morally wrong to do some of these things. In some cases, it’s just a way of forcing you as a journalist to think harder: “Am I being lazy here? Is there a better way to do this?” This is not an anti-anonymous source diatribe. This is more an argument for thinking through when you do it.
Another concept that Bill and I have thought through and learned in our work is what we call “the rule of transparency.” When applied to using sources, it would mean that if you are granting somebody anonymity, you have to write in the story why. And it’s an interesting little device because you discover that if it looks ridiculous—if your reasoning looks like you just couldn’t think of anybody else to call—then don’t do it. And if you grant somebody anonymity because it looks like the information then will somehow have the aura of more credibility because it’s covert, then what are you doing? You are withholding information from your audience in order to aggrandizeinformation that really isn’t special. What’s going on here? What are you working for—to impress your editor or to serve your reader? So our point here is, think through what you are doing in these little transactions and change the decisions you make.
At The New York Times, every time an anonymous source is used, editors ask, “How direct is the knowledge of this person, and does this person have an axe to grind that would bias the opinion of the reader?” Using that rule, a reporter would almost never use a press secretary on background to attack an opponent. Well, of course he has an axe to grind. And he has no direct knowledge. He’s just offering an opinion. There’s really no basis to offer him any anonymity. So if the rule of transparency kicks in, and you say, “Well, we’re going to say here in this story, ‘This is somebody who works for the President and he insisted that he be granted anonymity or he wouldn’t give us the information any other way,’” then chances are you will not publish it in this way.
Another issue is what people mean by such terms as “off the record” or “on background.” A source might say, “Hey, listen, this is off the record,” and actually mean, “You can quote me but don’t use my name.” This is the traditional definition of on background. The lesson here is not that we need to codify these terms, but that when you are talking with a source about the conditions of the interview, don’t assume that what you mean by on background is what the source means. Make the meaning clear. If the source says, “This is off the record,” then you say, “What do you mean by that?” Or, “Does that mean I can use it but not quote you?” Be absolutely clear about what the meaning of your conversation is. Set the terms in the clearest possible way. You will avoid a lot of problems, and it may also get you more information than you think they have.
I think our goal should be to get as much on the record as we can. Then you’re helping your audience the most. So, if you have the time and you’re not absolutely on deadline, I find it a very useful technique to say, “Let’s talk and at the end of the interview, I will tell you the quotes I want to use and you tell me if I can use them.” I’d say 98 percent of the time, people agree to go on the record when they hear the quote that you want to use. You are giving them some control. They’re not going to sit there fearing, “What is he going to use?” for the next 24 hours, thinking, “Did I make a terrible mistake last night?”
These terms and ground rules were established in an era in which there was more trust between source and reporter. That trust has been broken down, and it’s become more consciously a manipulative relationship, so sources are protecting themselves against you. Once they know that you’re not trying to screw them, often they’re perfectly happy to go on the record.
Paul de la Garza: I think it’s a confusing issue because of some of the guidelines that you get at the home office. For example, I just left the Chicago Tribune where I worked as a metro reporter and as a foreign correspondent. As a metro reporter, the guidelines were that you can’t have anonymous sources. Yet as a foreign correspondent and as a national reporter you could use anonymous sources. Now I work at the St. Petersburg Times, and we can’t use anonymous sources. Yet we use the New York Times and Washington Post news service stories, and they publish anonymous sources. This is ironic because the editors at our paper have no control over the standards that are being applied in those stories. We have had discussions about this at the St. Pete Times. My title is diplomatic writer, and I’ve only been there a couple of months, and my experience in these couple of months has been that people in Washington automatically assume—well, maybe not automatically, but more often than not—that they want to go off the record. I feel kind of silly saying, “Well, we have a rule that we can’t use unnamed sources,” because everybody assumes that you can. I’ve talked with my editors about this, and they just won’t budge.
Rosenstiel: I think that gives you terrific leverage in dealing with your sources. You can say, “We don’t do that. You want to be in my paper? You’ve got to be on the record.”… The problem isn’t that there’s something morally wrong with people being off the record. The problem is that that relationshiphas been converted from a tool that we offered to sources who were reluctant to provide us with information into a device that sources use to manipulate us. And we have to try to regain, to the extent possible, control over anonymity…. The more information that a reporter brings to the conversation, the harder it is for sources to stay out of the conversation because they don’t want their points of view overlooked…. That’s another way of saying that once you know that you’re doing a story, you have some power, whether you called the source or the source called you. We have more power in these transactions than we realize. The story is going to be done, these sources can be in that conversation or they can be left out of the conversation. And if they’re going to be in it, they can help to shape it.
Kovach: The whole notion of watchdog investigative journalism has not been carefully thought through. It’s just been done. We have determined that the very first periodical published in England in the 17th century described its purpose was to let the people know what was going on in the kingdom and that, at some point to do that, they might have to go undercover. That’s how they convinced the people that they should pay money to get the information. Before that, information came from the government and from some troubadour who came through town and sang songs. But to get you to pay for news, they were going to let you in on what the government was actually doing. So I mean the press started, really, as a watchdog industry.
Investigative reporting breaks down, we believe, into three kinds of investigative reporting that have different requirements, different techniques, and different pressures. The most obvious one, which is the one that you see most often in Washington, is not really investigative reporting so much as it’s reporting on investigations. It’s the journalist who talks to a government official who’s doing an investigation of the mob or a contract with the defense department. They’re coming together because it’s in the interest of the investigator to get the information out in a certain form in order to lay the groundwork for a successful conclusion to the investigation. So that is not really journalistic investigation; it’s an institutional investigation that the journalist is reporting on. It’s a form that requires the journalist to make a judgment about whether or not she or he wants to be in the game to begin with, because it is an effort to dictate the thinking about the information that’s covered. Somebody at a news organization has to make a decision. “We’ll let somebody else have this story. We’ll deal with it in another way, from outside the investigation.” It’s a hard position to take, but I would argue that there are cases where you need to take that position.
The other kind of investigative reporting is interpretive investigative reporting, and I would put the Pentagon Papers in that category. The Pentagon Papers were not an investigation that journalists did, but journalists gained the complete record of an investigation done by the government and reported it not as an investigation but as an analysis and a disclosure of the decision-making process of the government. So it required different skills and different techniques. It was analytical and interpretive reporting rather than investigation, an investigation only in the sense that it pried out information that was already put together. Without the journalists’ analysis, readers wouldn’t have been able to understand it. And nobody would have published it that way, just as raw documents. You might now with the Internet, but you wouldn’t have then.
And finally there is what I consider true investigative reporting, which places the most difficult demands on the reporter. That is the initial Watergate reporting that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did; before there was an investigation ongoing by the Justice Department or anybody else, they were out knocking on doors, talking to people who knew what was going on and enticing them to talk about that.
Better than that for my purposes was a series that Loretta Tofani did on rape in the Prince George’s County jail system. Now, you talk about a subject that would be the hardest subject on the face of the earth for a reporter to get people on the record. We’re talking about the judges who let prisoners who were in there for a traffic violation get raped by killers in this prison, the guards who were complicit in it, who saw it happen and did nothing about it, and the rapists themselves, who admitted to Loretta what they’d done, and did so by name. They were rapists. And Loretta got every element of that story in The Washington Post on the record with names attached to every bit of it. And she did it against the advice of her editors, who said, “It’s not a story, nobody’s going to talk to you, don’t do it, you don’t have time. We’ve got to do this story instead.” Loretta did her eight hours a day, and at the end of the day then she drove out and knocked on the door and talked to a person and talked to another person and talked to another person. She spent her evenings and her nights knocking on doors. And Loretta produced what I consider to be one of the greatest pieces of truly investigative reporting that I’ve ever seen.
So there are those three levels to reporting, each of which has an ethical consequence. In every case, the ethical question can be dealt with if you are committed to your purpose in informing the reader, if your purpose is to let them known who you are, what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why it’s important for them to have this information. Standing on that ground makes your decision-making process a lot easier. It helps you decide whether you want to get into exposing information that others do not want exposed or whether it’s information that others want you to get out for them on their terms in an investigation.
Rosenstiel: Let me talk for a moment about thematic frames in your story. Increasingly in Washington coverage you will see that the thematic frame of a lot of the stories is, “What’s the motive behind the actions you’re describing? Why is this politician doing this? What’s their strategy? What are the tactics? And why?” Scholars have called this the “interiorization of the news”—we’re no longer focused on what happened but on the psychological reasons or the tactical reasons for what happened. There are a lot of reasons, I think, that we moved in this direction. One is that there was an assumption that news is a commodity in oversupply. People already know the news, so you have to provide context and interpretation and analysis to the news. Another is growing skepticism about people in public life and politicians.
But there are certain consequences that I think you should be mindful of as you get into this stream and get pulled along by it. There are questions you should ask yourself: Are your audiences getting all the information that they need, information that different stakeholders in your audience need, from your story? If you are talking about the strategy and the tactics and the politics of a piece of legislation, does your story have something in it—does it have an adequate explanation of what that legislation actually is, what it would do, what the effect would be? If it’s a battle over a treaty with China, have you done more than just the boilerplate that identifies that it’s a treaty with China? Could a reader who hasn’t read all the other stories about this—or any other stories about it—know what the treaty would actually do? Do you know what the treaty would actually do?
It’s very easy in the current climate in Washington to write a really sophisticated political analysis and not know what the treaty or the bill or the anything else would be. But you’re really cheating your readers or your audience, and I think that there’s a lot of research to suggest that it’s a turnoff to people, that if you’re not a political junkie, you don’t care about the tactics and the strategy. You care about finding out what this treaty is actually about.
The second point, as you move into stream of motive reporting, is what’s balance and fairness supposed to mean? Think about the difference between being fair to your sources and being fair to your audience. Our job, I would submit, is to be fair to your audience. What does balance mean? I would submit it means that the reader or the viewer gets a balanced view in terms of what they need to know to understand something. Balance should not mean that you’ve got an equal number of quotes from Republicans and the Democrats. That is such a false notion of balance. Not all stories are equal. You know, if 90 percent of scientists think that global warming is a fact, what’s the purpose served by giving equal weight to the people who argue that it’s not? Is that a balanced understanding for your audience, for your reader, for the citizen? So, with fairness and balance, you should think about, “Who am I being fair and balanced to in this story? Is the story offering a fair and balanced picture that I’m giving the public, or is it offering fairness and balance to my sources so that they won’t be mad at me?”
A third idea is to identify the different stakeholders that would be interested in this story. This is a kind of concept that we hear about in civic journalism, but it’s one that we think is very, very useful. Who are all the people who have a stake in reading the story or understanding this story, and have I given them the different information? There isn’t a public out there. There’s no such thing as John Q. Public. The public is, you know, is a pluralist society. So if this is a story about taxes, have you told rich people and poor people and this person and that person how they would be affected? If it’s a story about education, there are lots of stakeholders—parents, teachers, administrators, people who don’t have kids but are taxpayers. Just think through, “Do I know who those people are? Has the story addressed them?” It may be that the same information answers all of those stakeholders, but it’s a useful exercise to go through.