On Friday, American president Donald Trump attacked media for using ‘anonymous sources’ in their reporting. Notwithstanding the fact that he often uses them himself, I believe that ‘anonymous sources’, if properly used, are vital to defend democracy. I often resorted to ‘unnamed sources’ during my career and I had to defend myself several times. I did it in The Hill Times in the May 3, 1999 and Oct. 19 2009.
Monday Oct. 19 2009
By Angelo Persichilli
THE HILL TIMES
Every now and then there’s a dispute over the media’s use of anonymous sources in federal political stories. I think it’s the wrong way to approach this issue which is really one about credibility and honesty.
When we write a story the most important concern should be about the truth, or at least what a journalist honestly considers is the truth.
Here’s a prototype of a conversation that takes place between a politician and a journalist.
Journalist: Mr. Politician, what do you think about the leader of your party?
Politician: “Is the question on or off the record?”
Journalist: “Whatever you prefer.”
Politician: “Okay, off the record. Our caucus is divided and the leader is not able to hold it together. Yesterday, during the meeting, he said we need to go to the polls, but the majority of the MPs are against it because Canadians are against it. The leader is definitely in trouble.”
Journalist: “That’s interesting. Can you tell me something on record?”
Politician: “Of course. Yesterday we had a very good meeting and a healthy discussion about the need to have an election. Canadians are sick and tired of this government, our caucus is united behind our leader and together we are going to replace it.”
Now, as journalists, which story should we write?
The one on the record saying that “the opposition is united behind our leader,” or the one about “the opposition,” according to anonymous source, “is divided and our leader is in trouble?”
I know what I would do and, in fact, I have done in the pst. I’d write the second story. I’d contact other members of the caucus and, if three or four other MPs would confirm the story, on or off the record, I’d go with the real story, the truth. That’s the commitment we have with our readers, to report the truth.
If the story turns out to be false because my sources were lying to me, there are dozens of other MPs who can write or call my editors and tell them that I did a lousy job and they can prove my story wrong. And I will correct it and pay the price.
But at this point the problem is not the source, it’s the ability of the journalist to do a good job. It’s not up to the journalist to become a mouthpiece for politicians. We have to understand that we in the media can be used, and we are used, with off-the-record statements, but also, and I would say much more, with on-the-record statements filled with lies, banalities and hypocrisies.
Some newspapers columnists recently attacked those who use anonymous sources. Well, my first concern is not about the courage, or lack thereof, of the person talking to me. My concern is hopefully reporting the truth. Once it’s established what really happened during the closed-door caucus meeting or whatever the story is, I shouldn’t care about the personal characteristics of the source.
As well, in many cases, we’re talking about hardworking MPs, who are living away from their families for most of the week and spending days in committees and nights in hotel rooms. Their opinions are seldom requested. They’re ignored and used only to raise their hands to approve decisions made most of the time by backroom people who are not elected. If they dare to express their disagreement, they’re marginalized and their political careers are most likely limited to the one just described.
If they want to fight against a system that has concentrated the power in the hands of a few people neutering Parliamentary democracy, and the only way to make their views known and make their presence on the Hill worth their time is to talk off the record with a journalist, so be it. If this helps to crush the political façade behind the one the unelected people are trying to run this country, I completely understand and respect them and their decision to remain ‘unnamed source’. If they want to talk to me I’m always available.
Will some of them try to spin me? Of course. But it’s up to me to see the difference between wine and vinegar. Journalists can’t get rid of an important way to make the truth known only because we can’t do our jobs.
It is our responsibility to check the credibility of our sources and, if we fail, we should change the sources. And, if we fail again, we should change jobs.