Twitter has taught me over the past few days that Toronto sports media are the only journalists on Earth to use unnamed sources.
— Rudi Schuller (@RudiSchuller) October 30, 2012
This Tweet has been making the rounds, and of course was RT’d by John Molinaro. It’s appealingly facile, and of course completely misleading.
For all the mumbling about the importance of traditional beat journalists ruling the roost in affairs related to Toronto FC, there seems to be an incredible misunderstanding about basic journalistic ethics on the part of some of these writers, particularly when it comes to the use of unnamed sources in detailing stories about the club.
Anonymous sources are important—nay integral—to all facets of print journalism, and that includes sports (NY Mag has a great take on the subject, which makes the distinction between bad and good journalists). But there are some general conventions in place to prevent abuse. Here’s the NPR Guideline on the matter for example:
Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny.
Or, if you want a less stringent take, the author of the NY Mag article adroitly writes, “The one easy, bona fide improvement [in journalism] is for more stories to describe unidentified sources in ways that give a reader some glimmer of their motivation for talking.”
Italics mine. None of these precautions were taken in Cathal Kelly’s Toronto Star piece on MLS’ supposed “interference” in the Olof Mellberg deal, which I critiqued yesterday. And there was certainly no even-handed attempt to question the motivation behind some of the anonymous commenters feeding Kelly what were essentially deliberately misleading accounts. Nor is he alone in the Toronto soccer scene.
The issue here is not the use of unnamed sources per se, but the lack of any “glimmer of their motivation for talking.”
If the beat journalists on Toronto FC can’t even get this basic ethical tenet right, what does this say about their overseers in the mainstream press?