Whose line is it anyway?

There are few people who look forward to a call from a reporter.

Unless you’re trying to get attention for an event or are eager to speak publicly about an issue, you probably cringe when you hear my voice on the line.

I accept this, and understand it. Reporters often cover controversial topics and have difficult questions for sources.

Government officials are in a different category than the average citizen. They have to be. They are responsible to their employers – the people. And, as a reporter, I am required to ask officials questions on behalf of their employers – the people.

But there has been another difference forming between government sources and others – many government sources are no longer willing to provide attributable information.

What this means is that Joe Schmoe, communications manager for the Such-and-Such Ministry, may tell me that the Minister plans to move forward with Project X on this date, with this funding. But Mr. Schmoe doesn’t want his name in the story. he will usually ask that it be attributed to “a ministry spokesperson.”

This is usually sent in the form of an email, within minutes of my deadline (even when I call the day before, or a few days in advance), after I’ve asked specifically for an interview with the minister or someone in the ministry who is familiar with the subject. Not  background information.

This has become so commonplace that those in media relations and communications at the provincial and federal levels often tell me, “Most media outlets, big and small, have no problem with this.”

But I have a problem with this.

Not only because it makes my stories weaker. It does. But it also puts me in a difficult position.

If Joe Schmoe is mad at his boss, and tells me something just to cause a kerfuffle, I have no name in my article to put that on. It comes back on me. Likewise, if Schmoe started working at the ministry yesterday and misunderstood the information he was given, again, it comes back on me. Not on Schmoe.

This practice is also spreading from government to business. I have had many conversations with communications people and business owners alike on why I cannot leave them out of a story.

The point is, most sources would prefer to be “He/she who shall not be named.” But they should have a very good reason for it before we reporters allow it.

When media outlets and news agencies allow sources to go unnamed without sufficient reason, it weakens the credibility of the reporter and the company. This is particularly dangerous at a time when more and more people are critical of the MSM (main stream media). We need all the credibility we can get.

My policy is to attribute information and quotes to a particular person, unless identifying the source would pose a significant danger to them. If it is background information that can be confirmed from other sources, or a collection of known facts, fine.  But otherwise, I will always, always push for an attributable source.

I encountered a particularly nasty new development in regards to “not for attribution” government sources a few weeks ago.

In response to a request for an update on something from a government ministry, I was told by a communications person that I “wouldn’t be wrong” if I said such-and-such was happening soon, and that I could put that “in my own words” in my story.

This goes beyond being told to attribute something to a “ministry spokesperson.” In essence, what the source seemed to be suggesting was that I vouch for the information “in my own words” in the story with no source whatsoever.

And what was said wasn’t Deep Throat material, believe me. I refused, and didn’t use the information in my story.

Not naming sources is a slippery slope. It can, and does, spread to other sources who feel entitled to refuse attribution when they see it frequently done in articles. And if we’re told by sources to attribute information to our crystal balls/psychic powers rather than an agency or a person, it will get worse.

“Not for attribution” should be the exception, not the rule, for all sources.

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About East of Boundary

I'm the civic affairs and business reporter for the Burnaby NOW. I also write about transit and Metro Vancouver. This is my personal blog on issues relating to Burnaby.
This entry was posted in Federal government, Journalism, Media, Provincial government. Bookmark the permalink.

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