Monday, March 21, 2011

What counts as a credible source for a newspaper article?

There's been a recent kerfuffle in the NYTimes about what counts as a credible resource for news reporting.  

To start, there was an article in the Times about how Michelle Obama is advocating breastfeeding.  The problem begins with the article containing with a few quotes from “anonymous bloggers."   

Arthur Brisbane, the public editor for the Times and the “reader’s representative” who responds to complains and comments, wrote in commentary.  

The Times’s policy on anonymous sourcing describes the use of anonymous sources as a “last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable.” The policy goes on to say that the identity of every anonymous source should be known by at least one editor. Unfortunately, it is all but impossible to know the identity of an anonymous blogger.

That said, I can see some merit in reporting on how a particular political controversy is playing out in the blogosphere, so long as that is clearly described as the basis of the story.”

Katie Zernicke, the reporter who wrote the original story responded saying:

“…her reporting included interviews, as well as the blog material, and that interviewees were reluctant to be quoted. The blog material supported what she was hearing in her interviews, she said.

“I wouldn’t have taken only blog postings, but given that they backed up what I was hearing elsewhere – and that this was generating so much comment online – they seemed to be relevant,” she said.

So… Should you use anonymous blog posts in news coverage?  I would say generally  no, there’s really not any value added to the conversation.  

The point of reporting is to add some information or insight to the public conversation.  If the blog quotes were brilliant, incisive bits of text that added a perspective or nuanced and colorful language, it might be a plausible addition.  But the quotes are pedestrian.  They fell like filler more than content. 

When you’re trying to make sense of a complex argument or data-space, your task is to gather insightful, dataful and  useful content.  Anonymous bloggers do not a source of data make.

Now if she had said 90% of all blog posts in the US during the past week were pro- or con- this position, THAT would have been an interesting insight.  (I presuppose that the author would have some way of crawling the blogosphere and sentiment labeling the comments; something, perhaps, along the line of “I feel fine” by Jon Harris and Sep Kamvar.) 

But one unknown blogger with an opinion is pretty cheap, content free stuff.  The NY Times really shouldn’t be reaching that low for their sources. 

Keep searching!  (And always use credible sources.)  

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