Tip-off versus rip-off

06 November 2011 - 04:51 By Joe Latakgomo

The media should treat anonymous sources with great caution

DO anonymous sources impact on the credibility of the media? To what extent should they be used by newspapers, if at all?

These are questions which the media debate regularly. Avusa Media has a policy on the use of anonymous sources. On-the-record sources are always preferable, and stories require at least two independent on-the-record sources with personal knowledge of the facts, or three off-the-record sources with personal knowledge of the facts.

Avusa policy states that anonymous sources may be used only when there is no other way to publish the story. Where it is unavoidable to use anonymous sources, an accuracy check is done, either confirming the information using other sources, or interrogating the sources' motivation in supplying information - and if there is any hint of vindictiveness or malice, to pass the information to the editor or his deputy or lawyers prior to publication.

Stories using single anonymous sources without supporting evidence are not acceptable.

Clearly, totally banning the use of anonymous sources will stop the flow of often critical information from whistle-blowers. But such sources should only be a last resort. In most cases, the use of anonymity is simply a crutch for lazy journalism.

Many exposés have followed anonymous tip-offs. From the days of the Information Scandal, to the current slew of corruption activities, including the arms deal and the oil scandals which are subjects of new inquiries, the Bheki Cele police headquarter leases and a cabinet minister's visit to his girlfriend in an overseas jail, all these are the result of tip-offs which relied on keeping sources anonymous. But these are special circumstances.

Recently, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula found himself facing charges of sexual impropriety. He had to apologise to his wife after abandoning a court bid to stop a newspaper from publishing allegations by what his lawyer called an "extortionist", and accusing papers of relying on "untested and baseless allegations".

What struck me was the reported request to one newspaper from the model Mbalula had sex with for anonymity in providing information. The woman, according to the paper, wanted anonymity "for fear of victimisation". The minister claims she had threatened to "go to the media" to expose him.

If that were the case, would she be entitled to anonymity? Other publications, including Sunday World, named the model - and so the anonymity granted by this newspaper was futile.

Mbalula's lawyer, Themba Langa, reportedly said: "It is false and defamatory for the extortionist to allege that she had a sexual encounter with our client, and City Press [the newspaper which had made the inquiry] cannot become a source of publication to such spurious and false allegations."

It turned out the allegations were not so baseless after all.

The use of anonymous sources has always been a tool to obtain information. But media history has many examples of this being abused. Some years ago, during the OJ Simpson trial in the US, a report was broadcast which claimed anonymous sources had told the reporter that DNA tests showed a match between blood on a sock found in Simpson's bedroom and his former wife's blood. The judge called the report "outrageous" and "irresponsible". NBC first responded by sticking to its story, but later admitted the information may not have been completely correct.

The question arose whether the broadcaster should expose its "anonymous sources" for giving it inaccurate information, or whether the reporter could have manufactured these "sources" to get a "scoop".

Sometimes anonymous sources have contributed massively to journalism - such as Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, which brought down US President Richard Nixon. But opponents argue that information from anonymous sources erodes whatever trust readers have in the media.

The use of anonymous sources is a necessary evil in the world of journalism, but can become a two-edged sword. Editors and their journalists must be cautious in using such sources.

Veteran US newsman Michael Gartner wrote: "The lesson [from the use of anonymous sources] is this: beware anonymous sources. They can lie without accountability. They can fudge without responsibility. They can hide behind anonymity. They can strain readers' credulity and damage journalists' credibility."