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Should journalists out each other's sources?

On Wednesday morning, I read a piece on the Politico web site speculating about the identity of confidential sources who helped me break a story about negotiations to sell The Washington Times. Initially, the Politico headline -- "What's next for the Washington Times" -- appeared to be news about who might the purchase the 28-year-old newspaper founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church.

But in fact, Politico reporter Patrick Gavin's story was in part about who my sources might have been.

"Who's doing the leaking?" he asked. I grimaced. Why would another reporter seek to expose anonymous sources? I can understand why company or government officials, or anyone threatened by the release of unauthorized information, might feel motivated or obliged to sniff out those who were giving information to reporters. In fact, my colleague Howard Kurtz just wrote last week about the Justice Department's decision to subpoena New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his 2006 book on the CIA, which relied on confidential sources.

But it's rare for journalists to try to out a competitor's unnamed sources. Presumably, reporters don't have quite the same interests as government prosecutors or corporate chiefs. Even as we are competing on a story, reporters share a mutual interest in preserving a free-flowing environment -- in making potential sources feel comfortable providing important information to reporters without feeling as if they are therefore subject to being exposed by a reporter's peers. To Gavin's credit, he didn't actually create a list of names of people who might have been my sources, but his speculation about even just one name bothered me.

I cringe when I see journalists speculate about the identity of another reporter's source. It feels as if they are violating an unwritten code. These parlor games seem reasonable if the writers are reconstructing history, such as when a Vanity Fair writer revealed in 2005 the identity of Deep Throat, the famed Watergate source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; or if media critics are looking into whether a reporter is being manipulated by his sources in ways that fail to serve the public good.

I know what you're thinking: Here's a journalist getting all upset about how another journalist tried to expose the sources in a story about...journalists. Still, the practice worries me. As I continue to report on the future of The Times, I wonder: Will my sources feel an added burden?

By Ian Shapira  | May 6, 2010; 8:51 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Why would someone care who a journalist's sources are? Because we want to know who said something in a story. Or is that too simple? "Who said so?" used to be important in a news story. But when journalism is just a reporter filtering unsourced comments, it's the journalist saying so. We need more.

Posted by: JGFitzgerald | May 6, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

It's understandable for Ira to view this as a question of tradecraft ("Why is he looking at my sources?) but it's better understood as an ordinary reportorial search for the facts ("Is what this anonymous source said trustworthy?")

You report something newsworthy, I'm going to try and check it out. If there's an unnamed source, what else is an enterprising reporter supposed to check?

This is about the readers, Ira, not the writers. "Outing" a source for its own sake would be despicable. Failing to check out the underlying basis for important events (including reporting) would be an abrogation.

Posted by: howardweaver | May 6, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Once again the press wants to be exempted from the standards it applies to the rest of the world. Why shouldn't one reproter "out" another reporter's sources?

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | May 6, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Anonymous sources were the product of a time when readers *trusted* the reporters, editors and newspapers.

Over the past 40 years in the news business, I've watched my colleagues become more and more arrogant, biased and agenda-driven as they try to become the next Woodward and Bernstein. The growth of new media has exposed the agendas and leanings of the old guard.

The public doesn't trust journalists enough to believe anonymous sources.

Posted by: DeanWormer | May 11, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

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