Reporters: Do Your Job to Keep Sources on the Record

It has become too easy and convenient for news sources to hide their identities. Yet the ire is often misdirected toward the cloaked spokespeople when much of it should be targeted toward reporters who enable such behavior.

The latest such kerfuffle comes courtesy of The Hill, a newspaper covering mainly Capitol Hill doings. It featured an article earlier this week headlined, “Axelrod quips irritate Clintonland.” The piece opened with three masked Secret, Espionage, Security, Protection, ProtectClinton supporters taking anonymous potshots at fellow Democratic operative David Axelrod, who is trying to be provocative in order to sell more copies of his new book.

Politicos are fixated on who these leakers are. To my mind, the root question is why The Hill let them get away with not being cited by name. Journalists must learn to just say no — no to sources who routinely hide behind anonymity for the flimsiest of reasons.

Comments not delivered “on the record” have their place as a legitimate journalistic tool. The sad truth is, however, these techniques are being overused.

If you’re a big deal like Deep Throat or Daniel Ellsberg, fine. If, however, you’re a minor campaign apparatchik, sorry, you and your little snit just aren’t that important. And reporters: You need to let them know this, and be prepared to enforce the once-proud journalistic rules of the road — even when it means forgoing a story or a juicy quote.

Even Chris Matthews joined the fray this past Tuesday evening on his MSNBC “Hardball” program, labeling the anonymous quotes “on background.” In actuality, the Clintonites were speaking on a “not for attribution” basis (for a complete treatment of what these terms mean and how to use them, see Can We Talk Off the Record? Resolving Disagreements, Increasing Understanding Between Reporters and Public Relations Practitioners).

What’s your take on comments that are not kept on the record? What is their place? How and when should they be used?



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