It’s true. Take somebody’s word for it.

September 3, 2010


I just read the Vanity Fair stories about Sarah Palin. I didn’t read them for the content, because that has been pretty much laid out in media reports; I was interested as a journalist in the issue of unnamed sources.

Some of what Michael Gross reports in those stories is based on documentation, most notably the accounts of the large amounts of money spent on clothing for Gov. Palin and her family during the 2008 election campaign. Much of this has been reported before — even during the campaign — and Gross reinforces the idea that the spending was excessive. Some might argue that political candidates should present themselves as they normally appear, but that’s not the kind of culture we live in. I imagine the campaigns also spent money on clothing for the McCains and the Obamas and the Bidens, but Gross doesn’t present that kind of information or any other point of comparison.


What troubles me, however, is that Gross’s story makes the case that Gov. Palin has become a ruthless, nasty, self-absorbed person; that she has a violent temper which she has directed at, among other people, her husband, Todd; and that the images of her as a hunter and as a pious person have been fabricated. In order to support his  portrait of Palin as a kind of angel of darkness, Gross explains that he could not name most of the primary sources for his stories because they were afraid of reprisals. The reader, of course, has no idea what might motivate the unnamed staff member or bartender to pillory Gov. Palin.


And, in fact, in Gross’s long article there is only one named source to support the image of Gov. Palin the writer creates. That source is Colleen Cottle, who was a member of the City Council when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Cottle, who told Gross she and her husband “will pay a price” for speaking openly about Gov. Palin, said it was difficult to work with a mayor who had a short attention span, didn’t understand mathematics or accounting well enough to discuss city budgets,  and spent only four hours a day at the job — mild comments compared to some of the other characterizations in Gross’s article.

Sarah Palin campaigining for the vice presidency in 2008.

I am not an apologist for Sarah Palin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stories Gross reports are true. In any case, Gov. Palin has made herself a public figure, and she has to take her lumps. What concerns me is that the use of unnamed sources — and only one named source — to paint a very ugly picture of this woman is out of whack, if we are supposed to accept Gross’s story as journalism. When I worked for the Gannett Co., the policy was that unnamed sources could be used only when necessary, and the necessity had to do with the importance of the information. Naturally, the policy also required that the source have first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, and that the top editor of the publication knew the identity of the source. The policy also required that the source be identified in the story as fully as possible and that the reason for withholding the name of the source was explained to readers. We might have applied that policy, for example, to report the kind of weapon used in a homicide when the source of the information was a police chief who did not want to run afoul of an overbearing county prosecutor.


Gross points out, of course, that neither Gov. Palin nor anyone on her behalf would agree to be interviewed for his story, and Gov. Palin has since clubbed the article as “yellow journalism,” using the bat that Gross put in her hands — unattributed claims. There is a great deal written about this subject, including the fact that the unnamed source has become the sine qua non of reporting in Washington. “Nobody has a name in Washington,” leading journalist Joann Byrd told the American Journalism Review in 1994.

Research has repeatedly shown, however, that consumers of news are skeptical of unnamed sources and are likely to assume that an unnamed source does not exist. Allen Neuharth, founder of USA Today and former chairman of the Freedom Forum free-press foundation had this to say on the topic in the same article in the American Journalism Review:

“There’s not a place for anonymous sources. I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.”


3 Responses to “It’s true. Take somebody’s word for it.”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Count me among those who are sceptical of “unnamed sources” – in the broadest sense. Every time I come across sentences that begin, “Governmental officials say…” or “Experts have declared that…” I experience the same feeling I get when I hear things like, “An un-named co-worker of X says her taste for undercooked raccoon is getting out of hand.”

    Which governmental officials? Which experts? And who’s supplying those raccoons?

    I suspect everyone who does any writing at all has pulled the same trick a time or two, often unintentionally. The sentence begins, “People say…” and then the writer’s personal opinion gets inserted.

    It’s difficult to pull off with matters of fact. If “people say” the murder weapon was stolen from the victim’s home, that can be shown to be true or false. But if “people say” Gov. Palin is a general jerk, well…. It’s not long before we’re into “He said, she said” with no hope of resolution.

    With the campaign season ahead of us, I predict we’ll see more of this.

  2. bronxboy55 Says:

    The line between news and gossip gets a little fuzzy in places, doesn’t it? And what percentage of the audience that read or heard the original allegations is still paying attention when those allegations later prove to be unfounded? The problem is, you can usually find someone to say almost anything, especially if they aren’t going to be identified.

    But how do you respond to the claim that without anonymity, many people wouldn’t be willing to talk, and a lot of the truth would go unreported?

  3. charlespaolino Says:

    It is true, not a claim, that many people wouldn’t talk if they had to be identified. As as a result of that, some things that are true — but also some things that are not — go unreported. As Neuharth said, resorting to unnamed sources has to be weighed against the importance of what is being reported. I’m not sure the claim that Sarah and Todd Palin threw canned goods at each other in their kitchen — attributed in the Vanity Fair story to one unnamed source — or the claim that they never sleep in the same bed — also attributed to one unnamed source — are grave enough matters to justify that kind of reporting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s