Saving Sources: Time to Stand Up

Introductory Remarks, 8th Annual Reva and David Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting, organized by the Investigative Reporting Program of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, April 26, 2014

Welcome to Berkeley, where we’re observing the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which is a natural segue into the theme of this year’s symposium, which focuses on the beleaguered condition of news sources.

This is something I’ve been talking and writing about for the past few years, so I’m very glad to be able to take a few minutes to tee this up before I hand off to the organizer and star of this gathering, Lowell Bergman.

I have three main points:

1. Press freedom is meaningless without source freedom.

2. Neither the media, nor the courts, nor even our frayed system of civic education has ever assigned sources the importance and respect they deserve.

3. And finally, the media need to step up institutionally for their sources.

1. To my first point, which should be obvious but apparently isn’t: press freedom Continue reading

Paying Reporters for Online Traffic Could Take a Toll

How news reporters are paid has always been a matter of some puzzlement, not least among reporters themselves. That’s partly because the value of what they do is hard to put a price on. It’s partly because to what extent their work requires subject knowledge, experience, sweat and even artistry is hard to determine.

And it’s partly because of a fundamental business uncertainty: How much does a given reporter contribute to the commercial success of the enterprise?

In the old days the model was straightforward: Publishers figured a more robust editorial product would mean more readers and a more hospitable space for advertisers to make their pitches. That meant higher ad rates and, the logic went, more revenue.

As for wages, though, the model wasn’t much help. The newsroom was a mildly anarchic micro-economy. It lavished money on supposed stars without evidence they brought in discernible payback, while the rest of the staff labored under a sluggish and generally stingy compensation system that rewarded longevity over performance.

The digital revolution promised to replace alchemy with science, by offering measurement tools to enable publishers to figure out what particular stories are actually worth—and, working backwards, what individual journalists should be paid.

In theory, the logic of calibrated journalism rests on the fact that both the costs and revenues of online news are potentially knowable: News managers already have a reasonable idea what producing a particular story costs. Now they could also forecast the revenue it’s likely to generate, since ads are being placed and priced with increasingly surgical precision, depending on where and alongside what they appear.

Knowing revenues and costs, the result would be a fairly reliable profit-and-loss projection for the assignment the editor was contemplating. The budget-minded editor would direct coverage accordingly.

We’re not quite there yet, but now the news business is taking a further step in that direction through a surge of payment schemes to encourage reporters for the vigor of their online engagement. A few weeks ago The Oregonian, the respected Portland daily, created a stir by introducing a compensation plan to pay journalists for the traffic their postings draw.

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Sex isn’t the only way to spoil a news relationship

Sleeping with a source seems like such a transparently bad idea there wouldn’t seem to be much point exploring why journalists shouldn’t do it.

But with The Los Angeles Times summarily firing one of its top investigative reporters after he told his bosses he’d had a brief affair with an informant, it seems worthwhile to look at what the limits ought to be in the relations between journalists and sources.

Physical intimacy is only one of many powerful off-screen entanglements that can develop amid the mutual dependency that often arises between reporter and source. Few of them draw the same gut-level disapproval as extramarital sex, but many still have the potential to corrupt the work that the public sees.

In this case, the Times reporter, Jason Felch, had been investigating the alleged failure of LA-based Occidental College to comply fully with federal rules requiring it to report complaints of sexual wrongdoing on campus. Felch had written three stories on the subject and had accused Occidental of incomplete disclosure, asserting that allegations of 27 sexual assaults had wrongly gone unreported to U.S. education authorities.

Occidental didn’t address the substance of the stories before they were published, and afterward hired a PR firm to prepare a detailed response. It was presented to the Times in March, three months after the last story ran.

The school argued, persuasively, that Felch had misunderstood his data, and that the 27 unreported instances did not involve assaults at all, but instead covered a range of allegations—distasteful emails, for instance—that fell below the threshold of significance at which disclosure is legally mandatory.

It was, then, when his bosses confronted him with the apparent reporting errors that Felch told them about his romance. He says the woman hadn’t been a source since the beginning of their affair—a contention that conflicts with what the Times says he initially said. He also says the affair was brief and, by now, was over.

Still, the Times fired Felch—a 10-year employee and a onetime Pulitzer finalist—and editor Davan Maharaj said Felch’s failure to tell his bosses sooner of his “inappropriate relationship” amounted to “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate.” The core point: “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information in appearance as well as in fact.”

I’m always uneasy when decisions like this one are made with an eye to appearances, and the Times allowed the core question—was Felch’s reporting skewed by his affections?—to go unaddressed. Too bad, because as a matter of professional conduct (as opposed to personal morality), that’s the question that really ought to matter.

But that silence is unavoidable. Who can possibly know? That’s why sex has to be off-limits for reporter and source. It destroys any reasonable expectation that the source’s influence will be weighed fairly and dispassionately. Did the source offer sex as a way to make sure his or her account got greater weight? Did the reporter suggest that sex might be a way to ensure the source version of evens is taken seriously?

And what if sex comes to be seen as a routine part of the bargain, if potential sources understand they might be asked for favors in exchange for sympathetic treatment? How much harm might be done in a general way to the ever-imperiled flow of publicly significant information?

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Why would anybody talk to a reporter? The plight of the irreplaceable source

Why should people talk to reporters? It’s a question that’s seldom raised among news people, which is too bad, because it’s an important one.

When you think about it, that question goes to the foundation of the entire edifice of a free press. And that foundation, at the moment, is shaky.

Let’s back up. No honest press, whatever its sense of mission and however firm its legal protections, can outperform its sources. It can’t be any better, stronger, braver, more richly informed, or more dedicated to broad public purpose than the people who swallow their misgivings, return the phone call, step forward, and risk embarrassment and reprisal to talk to the reporter.

The mythology of journalism enshrines the sleuths, sometimes the editors, even the publishers, but sources are really the whole ball game. Press freedom is nothing more than source freedom, one step removed.  The right of a news organization to tell what it learns is an empty abstraction without the willingness of news sources to tell what they know.

Considering how important sources are, it’s stunning how little affection they get and how flimsy the protections are that anybody claims for them.  For starters, take the current national security cases, the unprecedented Espionage Act prosecutions that the Obama Administration is pursuing against whistleblowers who gave news reporters secret information about governmental improprieties and illegalities.

Nowadays prosecutors, for the most part, prefer to leave the press alone, and happily embrace the idea that even if an informant belongs in prison for handing over secrets for publication, the media organizations that actually make them public need not be answerable.

That practice reflects a cozy little entente between government and big media: The government avoids a public fuss, and the media buy themselves immunity at the cost of their sources’ safety.

Of course, as a matter of moral logic ignoring the press is absurd. If publishing something causes real harm, those responsible should be called to account—whether they’re former security contractor Edward Snowden or The New York Times.

More important, if the publication creates, on balance, a public benefit nobody should be punished—neither the mighty news organization nor its source.

But news sources have few allies nowadays. That’s not just in the national security realm. If you look at digital era news practices, the overall environment for sources has deteriorated, and potential informants have better reason than ever to keep silent.

Consider the channels through which reporters and informants communicate. News organizations routinely post email addresses for their reporters. But does anyone believe an email to a journalist is private, in the way a phone conversation would have been a decade Continue reading

Transgender suicide ignites media ethics firestorm

An ethical firestorm has flared up over an expose that ran last month in Grantland, a sports and popular culture site affiliated with ESPN, on the unlikely subject of a new golf club and the woman who invented it.

As much as any media ethics matter of recent years, the furor touched off by “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” raises compelling questions about whether conventional journalistic practices are nasty, brutish and indefensible—questions raised by an online community of newspeople who have a strikingly different ethic in mind.

The Grantland article was the product of an eight-month inquiry into Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V, who spent seven years developing an aerodynamically innovative putter that some respected golfers believed materially improved their games. The possibility loomed of a major technological advance—and a business triumph—in a sport that reveres its toys.

But the Grantland writer, Caleb Hannan, discovered serious fabrications in Dr. V’s academic and professional resume: She didn’t, as claimed, have degrees from MIT and Wharton; she wasn’t related to the Vanderbilt dynasty; she probably didn’t help develop the Stealth bomber. Apparently, she had been an auto mechanic, albeit a remarkably gifted one.

Then, Hannan’s background checks took an unexpected turn. While trying to figure out why he could find no trace of Dr. V before 2000, he learned she was transgender, and had lived until then—and had married twice—under the male name she was born with. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself,” he wrote.

That story ended some weeks after Dr. V’s last, angry, email communication with Hannan, when in late October she killed herself.  In January the story was published.

It’s unclear what pushed her to suicide—fear that she’d be exposed as transgender, the lies in her resume, or the demons that many transgender people wrestle with, which is why they attempt suicide at rates far greater than the general population. (She tried before.)

But the transgender element is what provoked furious comment after the story was published—and it’s what challenges most frontally cherished practices of textbook journalism.

Traditionally, information bearing on the capacities, character, stability and credibility of an entrepreneur would be considered fair game for a reporter, who Continue reading

Why news organizations need to credit each other

In an unusual dust-up, the top editor of the Washington Post has complained to The New York Times that it failed to credit the Post for work that preceded, and nourished, important stories that the Times later ran. Why this should matter to you is worth exploring.

The Post stories, executive editor Martin Baron wrote to  Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, included significant works of enterprise journalism—among them disclosures about the National Security Agency seeding private computers with cyberattack capabilities, and unreported details from the scandal enveloping Virginia’s former governor. The Times did stories on both without indicating the debt it owed to work that the Post had already published.

The Post wasn’t the only news organization whose work The Times helped itself to, according to its public editor, whose job it is to investigate and respond to concerns about Times journalism.  McClatchy News’ Washington bureau found material it had unearthed about crude oil spillage in rail accidents was incorporated into Times stories, without a salute. (The Times later acknowledged its error.)

Now, it’s ironic to see The New York Times criticized for using the work of other outfits, since its own journalism is routinely and unapologetically ripped off by news organizations nationwide, indeed worldwide.

The Times remains, even in the digital age, far and away the mightiest influence on this country’s news agenda, and editors everywhere quietly take their bearings from the disclosures and priorities reflected in its stories and its lineup. A considerable slice of the U.S. news industry spends a considerable slice of its time trying to either match, exceed, localize, or explore the implications of The Times’ reporting—generally without any credit to The Times given or, I imagine, expected.

So when it comes to unacknowledged takings, The Times is much more often pillaged than pillager. But the issue Marty Baron raised is, I think, an important one, and one that’s only poorly addressed in contemporary journalism protocols and codes of practice.

True, if you’re not a journalist, you’ll be tempted to view this scrap as little more than dueling vanities. But what’s at issue here goes beyond pique, it’s the overall transparency of the news process—the way that significant information comes to light—and that’s not a trivial thing.

I suppose it matters less when the news organization whose enterprise was filched is The Washington Post, a great outfit whose reputation and reach remain unimpaired. Its editors may have been miffed, but The Post was hardly injured by what The Times failed to do.

The obligation to acknowledge previous work is more consequential if, say, the work is done by a tiny news site that ferrets out a hard-to-get scoop. If you, as a reader who sees that story only after it’s redone by a larger competitor, knew where it originated, you might want to pay attention to the upstart site. You Continue reading

Edward Snowden deserves a stronger defense than the media are offering

The news media’s silence while some of their boldest sources are prosecuted or jailed is something I’ve been protesting for some time, so naturally I was pleased when The New York Times, in an eloquent editorial on New Year’s Day, urged the White House to show leniency toward Edward Snowden, the former contract worker for the National Security Agency, whose leaks continue to expose the NSA’s monumental, intrusive and illegal monitoring of civilian communications here and abroad.

The Times recounted the broad impact of Snowden’s defiance, including widespread outrage, critical court rulings, internal investigations and even a grudging nod from the White House. President Obama nonetheless invited him to return from asylum in Russia to face whatever justice the administration is currently offering, the president apparently hoping that Snowden wasn’t paying attention when fellow whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, having shared similarly dirty laundry via Wikileaks, was manhandled and held in solitary for nearly a year and finally sentenced to 35 years by a military tribunal.

Who could turn that down?

The Times argued that Snowden deserves either clemency or some minimum-punishment plea bargain, and concluded: “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”

Now, The Times never said much on Manning’s behalf. Nor has it opined in favor of Manning’s helper, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who’s languishing in an ersatz house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

For his part Assange is ignored, when he’s not reviled, by the same news organizations he fed truthful and explosive information. The received wisdom among elite media, near as I can tell, is that he’s a weirdo and an egomaniac and therefore earned his current captivity, ensured by a months-long police siege outside the embassy in Knightsbridge that’s supposedly intended to get him to return to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, murky stuff with which he has never been charged.

The police response is grossly disproportionate and reflects far more serious concerns than a busted condom, but the media prefer to look the other way.

So amid this practice of source abandonment, The Times’ plea is welcome.

But in several regards, the pro-Snowden case is troubling. It doesn’t go nearly far enough toward ensuring a fair shake for whistle-blowers with vital stories to tell.

First, the idea that Snowden should get a break because his “disclosures have Continue reading