Jack Shafer takes readers' questions about anonymous sources in the news.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 17 2008 5:23 PM

Secret Identities

Jack Shafer takes readers' questions about anonymous sources, The New Yorker cover, and media criticism.

(Continued from Page 2)

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Rockville, Md.: Yes, freedom of speech and artistic expression are important, but this New Yorker cover also brings to mind the time Michael Dukakis was asked about what he would do if his wife was raped, and the time John Kerry was questioned if he believed there was a genetic basis for sexual orientation. Do you think there is a parallel?

Jack Shafer: If you're in the arena, you're in the arena. Both questions you cite were perfectly valid questions for the press to ask.

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Chico, Calif.: It kind of scares me that the above college student finds unnamed sources one of the sexiest things about the prospect of reporting professionally. In my humble experience, this should be seen as a last resort ... not a temptation or an ambition. But when do we cross the line?

Jack Shafer: I agree that anonymous sources should be used sparingly. In my Slate piece, I make an exception for the anonymous sourcing of national security stories, such as the New York Times' piece on the NSA wiretaps and the Post's story on the secret CIA prisons. In both cases, the newspapers had numerous anonymous sources, had gone the distance in confirming the substance of the allegations, and had given the government a chance to respond. One of the tests for me when I read an anonymously sourced article is this: based on the published story, could another reporter replicate its findings. If they can (and I think they could have in the NSA and CIA stories) I'm not as critical.

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Basking Ridge, N.J.: Do you think it has become harder for people (officials, high-level employees) to speak freely about sensitive subjects? In other words, in recent decades (let's say, since Watergate), have employers been taking more stringent lines with their workers talking to reporters?

Jack Shafer: My totally subjective take would be no. I don't have a good idea for a test that would give us a rock-solid answer.

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Re: San Francisco's paper: What happens if it melts down and collapses? Not sure that the Federal Reserve would say it's "too big to fail," so what happens to San Francisco?

Jack Shafer: Just because the Chronicle goes down doesn't mean that nothing would rise to occupy some of its space. The Media News chain owns a bunch of dailies encircling the city. Surely they'd jump in.

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Chicago: Could you explain further why you almost fully exempt war zone reporters regarding anonymice? Of course the source has reason to fear retribution, but doesn't it give reporters a greater chance to use them the wrong way?

Jack Shafer: My tolerance for anonymously sourced stories from war zones only goes as far as what the journalist is reporting. If he reports, based on his unnamed U.S. military source, that eight soldiers died, that number will be checkable at some point in the future. I'm less tolerant of war-zone reporters who file dispatches that are so vague or anecdotal that nobody will ever be able to verify the information. But I don't see much of that by the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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Seattle: Great article and, as a Wikipedia fan, a great idea to include a tool for reporting particularly bad anonymous source reporting. What's next? Do you really imagine that it will shame reporters and editors to do something more?

Jack Shafer: Yeah, I sorta think so. Both the Columbia Journalism Review and Portfolio have followed my piece about anonymice this week with their own pieces. Both criticize the way I tracked anonymice in the Wall Street Journal, so I'm refining my technique for a follow-up piece today. So please visit Slate later and read it.

Thanks to everybody who submitted questions. I'm out of time, my fingers tips are bleeding, and I worry that in the hour I spent with you Howie Kurtz wrote five articles, two books, and produced several TV shows. Damn you, Kurtz!

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