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May 26, 2005

How to Know When to Stop Listening - "Anonomous Sources"

I was trying to find an old post on "How to know when to stop listening," but it appears it was posted to my old site which is no longer archived. Rather than resurrect it I've decided to create a new series of posts in the same spirit. There are moments when a speaker signals that you may not stop paying attention to what they are saying. Once you learn to recognize these signals you will find it much easier and quicker to read the news each day and scan the blogs.

This is not the most important signal but it presented itself in this post by Dean Esmay. Dean links to an even better post on Neo-Neocon tracing the use of anonymous sources in news reporting. I posted my thoughts back when the Eason Jordon scandal was topic #1, but I lacked neo-neocon's excellent research to back it up. Now we know. According to the old masters of the journalistic art, a source who will not or cannot be quoted on the record can be useful as a tip for the enterprising young investigative reporter, but is not to be quoted in the story. Anonymous tips can be very helpful to police detectives but they are not admissible in court. The police and prosecutors, guided perhaps by the anonymous tip, must find other confirming sources.

A reporter who is quoting the anonymous source directly either could not verify the story or didn't make the effort. In either case, you can be sure that what you are hearing is not worth the mental bandwidth you are investing. Some (few) anonymously sourced stories will turn-out to be both true and important, but not many. News that is both true and important can generally be verified with a little effort. A few, like the Watergate story, take more than a little effort, but the overwhelming majority of stories that cannot be verifies are trash. You don't want to clutter up you head (or your blog) with trash.

Seeing as how the editors of the major news outlets are no longer demanding verification from their reporters, we , the readers must do that job. When you come across a story hinging on an unattributed source, sop reading and say out loud, "bring me some corroborating evidence!".

Posted by Jay on May 26, 2005 at 01:47 PM | Permalink


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