American Culture

CNN (and others) and its overuse of anonymity: There’s more to the story …

First, there’s this headline:

Secret Service spoke to Trump campaign about 2nd Amendment comment

CATEGORY: Journalism Then there’s this lede graf:

(CNN) — A US Secret Service official confirms to CNN that the USSS has spoken to the Trump campaign regarding his Second Amendment comments.

Then there’s this second graf that does not identify “the official”:

“There has been more than one conversation’ on the topic, the official told CNN.

Then there’s this fifth graf:

The Secret Service’s communications director Cathy Milhoan has not confirmed the conversations between the campaign and the Secret Service, but said in a statement Tuesday that “the U.S. Secret Service is aware of Mr. Trump’s comments.”

Twenty-five other grafs (not counting embedded tweets) in this CNN story by Tami Luhby and Jim Sciutto rehash in he-said, she-said fashion reactions to GOP candidate Donald Trump’s “Second Amendment” comment at a recent rally.

A definitive headline (“spoke to”) based on an anonymous source. A lack of confirmation from a named source. Then a rehash of comments from pro and con positions that have nothing to do with the hed’s claim.

Oh, CNN. Why do you to this to us? Why do you slap together such certainty based on such lack of certainty? But then again, maybe CNN had no choice. Say what?

Ask journalists who cover politics or branches of government about access. To get any semblance of information, they face these kinds of responses by sources when they conduct interviews:

  • “This is on background, right?” That’s usually spoken after the interview has been conducted. Reporters risk loss of access if they ignore the request.
  • “It’s our policy.” The source tells reporters “policy” dictates she can only be identified as a spokeswoman for agency X.
  • “Officially, we have no comment. But off the record — and I mean on really deep background …” The source tells the reporter she can’t even be identified by her agency, her title, her gender … anything.

Agencies — and political campaigns — have become tight-lipped. No one speaks on the record any more. Reporters who put sources seeking anonymity on the record lose what journalists need most — effective access.

The practice of journalism has devolved to getting and keeping access to sources. The price news organizations pay is the cheapening of their reputations by cluttering their stories with anonymous sources.

Readers pay the price, too. Too often, anonymity is granted to sources by news organizations without explanation of that grant. So readers rarely find out the hidden agenda of the source who demands anonymity.

Perhaps journalists, faced with the usual “this is on background, right?” comment, should ask this:

“Why do you need it? What’s in it for you?”

The answers might make a good story …