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Editor’s Memo


THERE were celebrations in the American media last week after the face of the anonymous source in stories which exposed the Water

gate scandal was unveiled.

How do we explain all the fuss 30 years after the huge scandal that shook the United States political establishment right to the core.

The press felt vindicated, especially after the Bush administration recently labelled anonymous sources as a threat to the credibility of the media. USA Today founder Al Neuharth at one time called unnamed sources an “evil of journalism”.

Writing in the Washington Post last week AFP Washington correspondent Zachary Coile said: “Even as news organisations scramble to write new policies to limit their reliance on unnamed sources, the unveiling Tuesday (last week) of the world’s most famous anonymous source, Deep Throat, reminds the media and the public why their use is sometimes necessary in journalism.”

The use of unnamed sources especially in investigative stories can be problematic. Only last month, it was reported Newsweek had to apologise under immense pressure after it published a story claiming that investigators at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba believed US guards flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet as mental torture to Muslim prisoners. The story was based on information supplied by unnamed sources. The story resulted in deadly riots in Afghanistan.

The Washington Post confirmed on Tuesday last week that 91-year-old W Mark Felt, the FBI’s No 2 official during the early 1970s who now lives in Santa Rosa, was the secret source for stories by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency in the Watergate scandal.

AFP quoted Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, as saying: “It is deeply ironic that the mother of all anonymous sources — which precipitated some really tectonic changes in the American political scene, including the resignation of a president — should be coming forward at a time when anonymous sources are being so impugned.

“I think it would be an incalculable loss to this country if all anonymous sources became forbidden, particularly in this era of governmental and corporate secrecy — and I might add, ecclesiastical secrecy. The price has been raised very high for whistle-blowers.”

Has it?

Here in Zimbabwe, there is no doubt that the use of unnamed sources is key when writing sensitive stories, especially those concerning state security, presidential voyages and senior government officials’ spendfests.

There is a very slim chance that an official spokesman would want to speak on the record regarding for example the number of Zimbabwean soldiers who died in the DRC.

In an environment where our public officials have been schooled in the art of secrecy, albeit some of it inane (they are not even prepared to give journalists their first names) a good journalist would require a Deep Throat to supply credible information. These are not always available and journalists have been known to invent their own not-so-deep throats.

This is a minefield for the media. Unnamed sources are a comfort zone of fiction writers disguised as journalists and lazy scribes who write stories after interviewing no one but themselves.

Two years ago Jayson Blair, a reporter with the New York Times, was fired for authoring a number of stories in which he quoted unnamed sources. The paper’s bosses were deemed negligent in allowing so many fictional sources through.

It has become fashionable for Zimbabwean journalists to quote anonymous sources. Everyone appears to have their own deep throat. Some of them have been credible — like the informant in the Willowgate scandal or the VIP Housing Scheme.

Others do not exist and the results have been devastating for some media houses. We have become very familiar with “sources said”, “an inside source said” or “a source who refused to be named said” even for innocuous stories where there are people ready to go on the record.

I have seen stories where reporters start off by quoting unnamed sources, then further down they quote an official confirming the information from the unnamed source, all in the name of pretending to have a deep throat.

These, together with creators of anonymous sources, make it difficult for the media to convince the readership that unnamed sources can still be credible.

Journalists should never name sources who provide information off the record. This is meant to protect the source so that he/she is available next time to provide information.

Other journos in a bid to prove that their sources actually exist have gone a step further. I remember seeing a university newspaper from Nigeria which had a story based on information provided by a “source who refused to be named”. Guess what? The face of the source was on the front page of the college rag with a stunning caption: “He refused to be named.”

A New York Times columnist used to describe his unnamed White House source as “an administration source with a heavy German accent”. There was no doubt at the time that he meant former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

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