Maine Media Violate Own Policies on Anonymous Sources
We’re against that – except when we aren’t: On Dec. 22, Lewiston Sun Journal executive editor Rex Rhoads authored a front-page piece in which he announced that effective Feb. 1, the paper would end its policy of allowing anonymous comments on its Web site. Rhoades offered several reasons for the change – to encourage more civil and thoughtful discussions, for instance – but his main justification for banning those who refused to register and use their real names from the online comment section was consistency.
“The Sun Journal does not use unidentified sources in stories,” he wrote.
Two days later, the Sun Journal ran a front-page story based in part on unnamed sources.
The article, by regional editor Scott Thistle and managing editor Judith Meyer said the paper had “confirmed through multiple sources” that Thomas Rhoads of Portland, husband of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rosa Scarcelli, was one of the authors of a controversial and now-defunct Web site attacking ex-independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler. Nowhere in the story were those “multiple sources” identified.
The Sun Journal offered no explanation for this abrupt policy change. Or policy deviation. Or whatever it was. Instead, editor Rhoades took up more front-page space that same day with a piece claiming response to the ban on anonymous online comments had been “overwhelmingly” positive.
No word on how the public might feel about a similar ban on editorial hypocrisy. Or is this just editorial ineptness?
To be clear, I have nothing against the use of anonymous sources under certain circumstances, primarily when there’s no other way to attribute the information because of extenuating circumstances. If possible, those circumstances should be explained to readers (for instance: The person asked that his or her name not be used because he or she would be fired if it became known he or she had spoken to a reporter). I respect news organizations that seek to get all information on the record, but I think a total ban on unnamed sources is both unrealistic and fails to serve the best interests of the public.
Like the Sun Journal, most mainstream news outlets in Maine claim to avoid using anonymous sources. Like the Lewiston paper, most of them do a poor job of meeting that standard. Associated Press stories used in print and broadcast routinely quote government and other spokespeople in Washington and around the world who refuse to be identified. The Maine media publish and air those articles without any ethical qualms or disclaimers.
Then, there are the news outlets in the state with vague policies. The MaineToday Media papers – the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel – have a longstanding ban on unnamed sources – except when they don’t. In October, the papers ran a story citing anonymous sources claiming that Rhoads and political consultant Dennis Bailey were the authors of the anti-Cutler Web site. Tom Bell, the reporter who wrote most of the piece, asked that his byline be removed from the article because he disagreed with the decision by his editors to include the information from unnamed sources.
But once the vaguely substantiated claim that Rhoads was behind the Web site made it into print, it set the standard for future reporting. On Dec. 26, MaineToday State House reporter Susan Cover included this sentence in a story on the site’s authors:
“The Portland Press Herald reported in October that Bailey and Thom Rhoads … were the authors of the website.”
In this way, Cover twisted the questionable coverage of a rumor into a well-sourced fact. Compare her description of the earlier story to that of her MaineToday colleague Beth Quimby in a Dec. 24 Press Herald story on Bailey’s announcement that he was one of the site’s authors:
“In October, The Portland Press Herald was contacted by several people who anonymously identified Bailey, Scarcelli and her husband, Thomas Rhoads, a writer and researcher, as authors of The Cutler Files.”
That’s far more accurate – and honest – than Cover’s characterization of the earlier story.
It appears to be well past time for Maine editors and reporters to revisit the issue of using unnamed sources in an effort to draft policies that are responsible, workable and a little more consistent than what they have now.
Weak work: Do the people who make up those top-ten-stories-of-the-year lists ever read the original articles? In the Dec. 26 Maine Sunday Telegram, the eighth biggest news item of 2010is listed as :
“Portland goes to a strong mayor.”
In fact, the city’s voters amended the municipal charter to create a relatively weak mayor. The office’s lack of real power was an issue in the campaign and was mentioned in several earlier stories in the Telegram’s sister paper, the Press Herald, including an Oct. 25 piece that said there was opposition to paying a full-time salary for what is “primarily a ceremonial job.”
Who’s the governor? The Dec. 27 Associated Press story by Glenn Adams on how many governors Maine has had contained a small error. Adams referred to Brent Littlefield as “Gov. John Baldacci’s senior political adviser and inaugural director.”
In reality, Littlefield works in those capacities for Governor-elect Paul LePage.
The Lewiston Sun Journal still had it wrong everywhere by late this morning. The editors there were probably busy working on their new policy on anonymous sources.
Hard work on hard time: There’s far too little quality investigative journalism in this state, so it’s always worth mentioning it whenever some turns up. Even if it’s a reprint. And even if it’s in an out-of-state publication.
Lance Tapley’s reporting over the last five years on serious problems at Maine’s Supermax prison, most of which originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix, has been collected into a lengthy piece by the Boston Review.
According to an e-mail from Tapley, “A much larger version of the BR article, with academic notes, will be in ‘The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse,’ an anthology edited by Marjorie Cohn to be published in a few weeks by New York University Press.”
If you haven’t seen this stuff, it’s well worth your time. If you have, it’s still worth another look.
(Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix.)
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.