So, there’s a Toronto Star story this morning about Kathleen Wynne’s political future. By my count, it has five sources in it who are quoted directly, but not named. There are three other people quoted in it: Wynne, her Finance Minister, and a guy who doesn’t want to be quoted.
Sources told the Star that more than a dozen MPPs are looking at not running again in the 2018 election over fears they will lose their seats due to her unpopularity.
No MPPs will yet speak publicly about the potential exodus — more out of their personal regard for Wynne than due to a fear of retribution.
But some are known to be considering an appeal to her en masse to share their worries about the future.
Quite apart from whether this kind of story is fair to Kathleen Wynne or not – she’s in politics, and she has likely authorized many people to speak anonymously on her behalf over the years – this kind of story is possibly unfair to readers. Among other things, these sorts of tales require the reader to trust the paper, trust the reporter, and – most importantly – trust the anonymous source.
Should we? I mean, if these folks feel so passionately about the need for Kathleen Wynne to step down, shouldn’t they say so, publicly? Shouldn’t they attach their name to their conviction?
Media professionals everywhere in the world grapple with the thorny issue of anonymity. It can be a double-edged sword.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), “Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking a big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.”
The SPJ code of ethics makes two important points on anonymity:
1. Identity sources whenever possible. The public is entitled to as much information as can be provided on sources’ reliability.
2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
The problem surfaced recently in The New York Times’ newsroom. In March, the newspaper’s top management cracked down on anonymity, sparked by readers’ complaints about “persistent” use of unnamed sources. The new guidelines require editors to approve the use of anonymity in stories.
“Direct quotes from anonymous sources should be used rarely, and only when such quotes are pivotal to the story,” according to the July 15 article explaining the crackdown. “At least one editor must know the specific identity of any anonymous source before publication.”
The Toronto Star is one of the best newspapers in the world. It is. The reporter in question has been on the Queen’s Park beat for many years, and is considered to really know his stuff. And, as noted, Kathleen Wynne is a grown-up politician, and she knows how the game is played.
But, if you were to ask the public about important public issues – say, who their Premier is, and is going to be – they would probably indicate a preference for knowing who a source is, and what that person’s agenda is, so they can decide whether he or she is credible or not.
It’s not that reputable reporters or newspapers lie: in my experience, that almost never happens outside of Russia and dictatorships. It’s that anonymous sources do.
So, at the end of this windy exposition, does anyone have a clear sense of what is happening with Kathleen Wynne?
No, not really. And that’s the problem with the false god of anonymous sources: you just don’t know, you know?