Reporters trust or ignore sources at their own peril

Somebody once asked me how it was that journalists knew that an accident was going to happen so they could get there to witness and then write about it.

It was surprisingly difficult to answer. Very little in the news is, in fact, seen first-hand by reporters. As a rule we only actually witness arranged events such as court cases or press conferences. When, once in a blue moon, we stumble across an actual event, it can be quite hard to work out how to write about it.

Journalists mostly record what other people tell them: the newspaper account of a car accident or robbery comes from the police spokesperson, who in turn relies on the police officers who attended the scene. If the incident is big enough, journalists will look for eyewitnesses.

We are utterly dependent on our sources, creating a complex relationship that is often opaque to the reader. Two recent stories highlighted how difficult it can be.

In one case I received a complaint from a government official and whistle-blower whose request for anonymity I will respect here, as the newspaper did in its reporting. He felt that the newspaper had reneged on an agreement to publish a series of articles based on a stack of documents he had supplied. Only one article dealing with mismanagement in the department in question appeared in the paper.

“Of concern to me is the lack of professionalism and non-publishing of the next series of articles as per the original agreement,” wrote the disgruntled source.

I had to point out that publication could not be promised before the information was checked in detail. In the event, the team working on the voluminous documentation decided that only one aspect of the issue could be turned into a report. Other aspects were simply not clear enough or the evidence of mismanagement was insufficient.

The source had passed on the information to the paper to expose what he saw as obvious problems in a government department, and he was deeply disappointed when the paper did not regard the evidence as equally clear.

I came across the other story in Zimbabwe. Vincent Kahiya, group editor of the three titles of Alpha Media Holdings, told the story of how he had received documents some time ago showing that a prominent Movement for Democratic Change minister was about to be arrested on rape charges. Everything was there: the warrant, supporting documentation and the required note from the Cabinet secretary allowing the execution of the warrant.

He called the minister in question for comment, met him and then called the various players whose names appeared in the impressive-looking documents. None of them knew anything about it: the documents had been forged in an elaborate attempt to get the newspaper to publish a complete falsehood.

Kahiya was relieved to have seen the political trap in time to avoid it.

Very little information that is brought to the attention of newspapers comes without an agenda. There is some advantage being sought: revenge, scoring a political or personal point, building or destroying a reputation.

The tools used range from outright fabrication, as in the Zimbabwean example, to selection, emphasis and spin; these are the tools of the ­public relations industry.

As long as it is spotted, fabrication is dealt with easily. But the other three pose a more difficult challenge and journalists often need to dig deep to see whether a story of real public interest is hidden beneath the spin.

Journalists and their sources are dependent on each other and build a range of possible relationships. All kinds of deals are struck or assumed, as in the case of the disgruntled whistle-blower. Both sides expose themselves to risk: a journalist may betray a confidence and a source may mislead the journalist.

Navigating these waters requires considerable skill to ensure that the source is not harmed, the journalist not used and, most importantly, the audience gets reliable reportage.

This column was originally published in The Mail & Guardian on Sept. 16, 2011.

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