The New York Times’ Guideline on Integrity is clear about when anonymous information should be used: “The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable.” NPR’s Ethics Handbook says—in large, bolded text at the top—“Don’t let sources offer anonymous opinions of other.”
Each journalism school and media entity has their own handbook or guidelines. While most places aren’t as thorough as The New York Times or NPR, best practices are similar everywhere.
- Reporters are supposed to push sources as hard as possible to speak on the record.
- Failing that, they are supposed to identify confidential sources as specifically as possible without risking their anonymity.
- Finally, they must determine that the source has a justifiable reason for not speaking on the record AND that their information is important enough to warrant publishing anonymously.
We could have the “ethics in journalism are slipping” conversation, but that’s boring and overdone. What is notable is that whatever the state of journalism ethics may be, consistently the most blatant offenders are the sports departments.
There are a couple of systemic reasons why the usage of anonymous sources in sports is done so terribly. Because anything can be construed as tampering and therefore a league offense, sources are given carte blanche to speak anonymously. The sports universe is small enough that even small descriptors of the source could jeopardize their anonymity, so most are referred to as a “league source” and thus the reader doesn’t have a good idea of the person’s possible motivations. Are they an agent, executive, player, league official? Who knows.
I brings this up because of reports last week that the Cleveland Cavaliers had suspended Andrew Bynum indefinitely. The Cavaliers took a low risk, high reward flyer on Bynum before the season by signing him to a two year, $24 million contract with only $6 million guaranteed. It was a bold move with the possibility of a big playoff if Bynum came close to returning to his All-Star form. Alas, in the midst of a terrible season for both Bynum personally and the Cavaliers as a team, it seems things didn’t quite work out.
The first part of the story is the what, that Bynum was suspended indefinitely. The second part, the why, is where things went awry.
In sports breaking news, there’s almost always only two sides to a story. In the NBA, things are rarely multilayered or complex. In trade talks, there are two opposing teams that attempt to advance their agenda through the media. In free agent talks, there is the side of the team and the side of the player. A good reporter, to the extent possible, talks to both camps to try and divine the “truth” of the situation. Instead, sports reporters rarely do such a thorough job.
A quick example of how the “league source” sausage is made.
Awhile back a prominent basketball reporter told me a story. A fringe player was having a good Summer League, and this player’s agent called the reporter and said something like, “Team X is scouting my guy and considering signing him”. This reporter looked at Team X’s depth chart, salary cap situation and the players they were thinking of inviting to training camp and knew there was no way in hell Team X would sign the Summer League standout.
The reporter ended up writing a story that said something like, “a league source tells me Team X has been scouting and is intrigued by Player Y”. It is a win-win situation all around. The agent has gotten buzz for his player that will perhaps lead to a minimum contract. The reporter has curried favor with the agent that will perhaps pay off in the future, without reporting anything untrue. After all, it’s Summer League, and every team is scouting every player. Perhaps the only person “harmed” here is the reader that doesn’t understand that the report, while technically true, will never come to fruition.
Getting back to Andrew Bynum, reporters failed on reporting the why. Nobody got Cavaliers officials or Bynum and his agent on the record to comment on the suspension. Seemingly, reporters did not get anybody associated with Bynum to even speak off the record. Instead, they sought out (or where sought out by) every Tom, Dick and Harry with an axe to grind, and let themselves be propaganda mouthpieces.
A collection of reporters let themselves become the vehicles for anonymous sources to slander Bynum. What happened to NPR’s edict to not, “let sources offer anonymous opinions of other”? Bynum was anonymously called “disruptive”, described as “reckless”, it was reported that he “doesn’t want to play basketball” and that teams were worried about his “desire to play”.
What we saw precious little of was actual follow-up reporting, or stories offering depth to the initial reports. What did he actually do to cause the suspension? Would the behavior have been tolerated if he had been playing well? Does Bynum think he was being disruptive? If teams were to trade for Bynum, what assurances would they need? Was Bynum frustrated with his teammates, his coach, his team’s record, his own poor health, or a combination of these factors? When did things change, considering early reports were that he had lost 30 lbs. and was working hard in practice? What effect did Bynum and coach Mike Brown’s previous relationship in Los Angeles have on the situation.
A week later, just about the only thing we learned is that there are a lot of people in the NBA who dislike Andrew Bynum, and that there are a lot of reports who are willing to let anonymous sources impugn somebodies character. Let’s try and do better next time.