Anonymous Sources, Part II – Say What?

This is Part II of a three part series.  Part I appeared this past Wednesday.


Remember the Society for Professional Journalists’ “Code of Ethics”? 

It says reporters should:

— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

While the Minnesota Monitor’s self-published code of ethics is largely cribbed nearly verbatim from the SPJ’s code, they curiously edit this commandment:

* Never misrepresent events in an attempt to oversimplify or take events out of context.

Let’s look into this.


On Wednesday, I noted that when pressed by Michael Brodkorb in the Monitor thread comment section, Fecke responded by changing two words – adding the word “reportedly” to quotes by Minnesota GOP chairman Ron Carey and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (DFL).   As I noted at the end of Wednesday’s installment, it’s almost a piddling thing – a class E misdemeanor among blogging ethics violations (and yes, I’m highly  and ironically aware the term “blogging ethics” is not unanalogous to “Bolivian jurisprudence” or “JB Doubtless’ subtle shades of metaphor”).  It’s hardly the stuff that scuppers a journalistic endeavor’s credibility. 

By itself.

We’ll come back to that.


In the comment thread on Monday’s post at Minnesota Monitor, Michael Brodkorb asked:

Jeff:You have a direct quote from the Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Ron Carey in your post:

“…GOP chair Ron Carey saying there is a ’90 percent probability’ of a change…”

Did you interview Chairman Carey?  Did he give you the “90 percent probability” quote?

Fecke responded (with emphasis added by me):

 I’m not going to clarify every word in every story I write for you.  Maybe I did interview Ron Carey…and maybe I got the information from wire sources…and maybe there’s another option you haven’t thought of.  Regardless, I’m not going to get sucked in to what’s clearly a case of you hyperanalyzing every word I write to see if you can find some reason that what I wrote is technically inaccurate, whether or not a reasonable person would find it so.

Now, let’s hold on right there.

“Maybe” one interviews someone, and “maybe” one gets the quote elsewhere?  Would, as Jeff alludes, a “reasonable person” find that to be a mere technicality?

No.  Indeed, the sources a journalist, or “journalist”, uses are critical to establishing the reader/viewer’s sense of the story’s credibility.  Being able to point to a source with reasonable knowledge of the details of a story is a key part of reporting.  Remember – a reporter (as opposed to a columnist) is as a general rule not supposed to be the story, or be part of the story; they are supposed to relate the story to the reader.

Part of the job is relating facts, quotes and information – with which the reader is probably unfamiliar – to the reader in a way that tells the story clearly and credibly.   One does this by telling the reader the source of the assertions in one’s story.  When the reader knows the source of something – a fact, a quote, an assertion – the can gauge the credibility of the reporter’s story-telling accordingly.  “The Senator told me in a one-on-one interview…”, “I read on a bathroom wall that…”, “according to an Associated Press report of the event…”, “…a number of left-leaning blogs report…”, and “highly-placed sources within the company and familiar with its accounting procedures”  are all ways of sourcing a quote in ways that tell a reader how much credence to lend the quotes.

 It’s one of the reasons journalists are supposed to shy away from anonymous sources (the Society of Professional Journalists and the Minnesota Monitor’s codes of ethics enshrine this principle); without knowledge of who the sources are and the baggage, grinding-axes and backstory they bring, the reader can’t get a complete picture of the story. 

Read the original piece Jeff posted before making the corrections – adding the word “reportedly” twice.   I’m going to pull out a few pieces – some quotes from Fecke’s original piece.

Jeff clearly understands the idea of sourcing; he clearly lists the source of one quote:

Leslie Sandberg, communications director for the Mike Ciresi campaign, issued a statement to Minnesota Monitor saying, “We’re going to abide by the endorsement, and our campaign looks forward to having many supporters show up whether the caucuses are held in February or March.”

See how it works?  Sandberg – Mike Hatch’s former flak – sent the Monitor a statement.  Simple, clear, and establishes the credibility of the information Fecke has just presented. 

Two more quotes:

Jess McIntosh, communications director for the Franken campaign, was equally positive. “While we can’t believe that no one has come up with a better name than `Super-Duper Tuesday,’ we’re glad Minnesotans may be able to be a part of it. And we’re excited about increased participation in the caucuses.” …The Bob Olson campaign did not immediately have an official statement, but campaign manager Eric Mitchell said that the move was “good for Minnesotans,” and that it would hopefully increase participation in the caucuses.

So how did Jeff hear from Jess McIntosh and/or Eric Mitchell?  A statement?  An interview?  A drunken confession after hours at the Lexington?

Well, no matter. 

The next quote is from Minnesota GOP chairman Ron Carey:

While the state has not officially moved the caucus date, both DFL and Minnesota GOP leaders have indicated support for the switch, with GOP chair Ron Carey saying there is a “90 percent probability” of a change, and the DFL already giving preliminary approval to the plan.

“Ron Carey saying”. 

What would a reader – that putative “reasonable person” that Fecke alluded to above – assume was the source of that quote?  “Say[ing]” implies a “verbal statement” – arguably insinuating that the reporter got this quote directly from Ron Carey, via an interview, a phone conversation, an email – some direct communication.

I contacted Ron Carey’s office on Wednesday afternoon.  “To the best of my knowledge, Ron has never talked with [Jeff] Fecke about the caucuses”, said Mark Drake, Carey’s press contact.  Furthermore, according to Drake this quotation was not part of any statement issued by anyone in Carey’s office.

Which was, of course, what Michael Brodkorb told Fecke in the original Monitor article’s comment thread:

I called the Republican Party of Minnesota this morning and spoke with the Party’s communications director, Mark Drake.  I asked Mr. Drake if Chairman Carey did an interview with Minnesota Monitor yesterday.  He replied that Chairman Carey did not do an interview with Minnesota Monitor, nor was an interview requested.

If you didn’t interview Chairman Carey, how did you get the quote for your story?  According to numerous attendees at yesterday’s meeting of representatives of the major political parties and Secretary Ritchie, you nor a representative of Minnesota Monitor were present at the meeting.

Fecke responded:

I’ve added one word, twice.

As we noted Wednesday, that word was “reportedly”.  It changed the quote to “…with GOP chair Ron Carey reportedly saying there is a “90 percent probability” of a change…”.  The change was made without telling the readers.

What it meant was that while Fecke’s original story was very vague about the actual source of Carey’s quote, the revision was clearer; Fecke had gotten the quote from some indirect source. 

Are one’s sources direct, or are they indirect?  It can make a difference in the sort of credibility a reader assigns to a reporter’s writing. 

It’s not an academic distinction.  Compare and contrast:

  1. “Billy said Annie is a poopyhead”
  2. “Billy reportedly said Annie is a poopyhead”

One is direct, authoritative, to-the-chase, and implies that one has gotten the information – the quote – “straight from the horse’s mouth”.  The other adds a level of plausible deniability, as if to say “I don’t know for sure, but this is what I’ve heard…”. 

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics enjoins a reporter (emphasis added) to “Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”

So if Carey’s quote didn’t come from a face-to-face interview, and it didn’t come from a statement, where did the statement come from?

Or, as Fecke’s un-acknowledged correction put it, what is the quote’s “reported” source?  As this is published, an email to Fecke asking for clarification remains unanswered.


Before we move on to Monday’s installment, let’s look at another quote.  It was in a May 17 piece by Fecke, quoting Senator Norm Coleman’s lambasting of Attorney General Gonzalez.  The quote:

“’I don’t have confidence in Gonzales,’ Coleman said, adding, ‘I would hope that the attorney general understands that the department is suffering right now, and he does the right thing, and that is allows the president to provide new leadership.’”

“Coleman said”.  Not “Coleman reportedly said”.  Not “Coleman said in a statement supplied to the Monitor”, or “Coleman related to an acquaintance during a drunken night of hold-em and Ten Years After videos”.  “Coleman said”.  Said to whom?  If one is a journalist, the implication is “to me”, unless you say otherwise.  (I’ve taken a screen shot, as of Wednesday, June 27 at 5PM, showing the quote in its original form). 

Did Fecke interview Senator Coleman?  A reliable source tells me the  Senator’s quote occurred during a telephone press conference, and that no Monitor staff were present at press conference conference at all.

Just to confirm, I emailed Robin Marty, the Monitor’s managing editor.  She had not been involved in setting up any interviews with the Senator.  As this is published, an email to Fecke asking for clarification remains unanswered.   

“Coleman said”.  To whom?  When?

We’ll discuss that in the next installment, Part III, Monday morning.

3 thoughts on “Anonymous Sources, Part II – Say What?

  1. You know, I’m just a dumb civilian but when I read Ron Carey said “xxxx”
    the quote marks indcate to me that what is inside those quotes are words that Ron Carey actually said. That’s what Sister Mary taught me in Junior High English

  2. Apparently no one told Jeff that the journalism rule of who/what/where/when/why/how applies to each element of a story.

    So where’s the rogue’s gallery of Fecke defenders now?

  3. Pingback: Anonymous Sources, Part III – In Someone Else’s Words | Shot in the Dark

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