Neil Reynolds has worked in some of the country’s largest newsrooms, including the Ottawa Citizen and the The Vancouver Sun. He’s now editor-at-large at the province’s three daily newspapers, the Telegraph-Journal, Daily Gleaner and Times & Transcript. He’s also a columnist with The Globe and Mail.
On Thursday, at 8 p.m. in the Kinsella Auditorium, Reynolds will talk about anonymous sources in journalism during the 9th annual Dalton Camp lecture.
AQ: Out of all the subjects you could talk about, why did you decide to focus your lecture on anonymous sources?
I think it’s just one of those principles that I became convinced of early in my career. I think the primary reason is that most use of anonymous sources is not necessary, it’s not needed. It’s an enabling device for reporters. It is harder to work in a no-anonymous source environment, but it is not impossible. The bottom line is simply that having an effective prohibition, an effective ban on anonymous sources, requires that little bit of extra hard work, a little bit more persuasion on the part of the reporter or the writer.
What happens usually is that they get the source who does not want to be named to willingly permit the use of the name. Banning anonymous sources is the best way to get the information that anonymous sources have.
NR: There are many excuses. Some of those excuses are probably reasons. There’s no question, looking at this issue historically, that there are times and places where people legitimately conceal their identity in writing, whether it’s writing a provocative novel or writing a biography or whatever it is. You can’t really take my argument into Stalinist Russia. There are limits. My argument holds in those societies where you really do in fact have freedom of speech.
AQ: I’m thinking, in our society in particular, about people who are most vulnerable.
NR: You go through a phase with controversial issues where nobody will talk about them, only a few people will talk about it. Gradually, more people talk about it. Finally, everybody talks about it.
The question is, at what point in that spectrum can a newspaper say, no, we’re not going to do this story if you’re hiding behind anonymity. If you want us to believe your story, you’re going to have to give us a name and a face.
This is simply my experience. Many people will ask for anonymity if it’s obtainable. But in almost every social issue that I’ve come across in my career, there are people who will talk about that particular issue with name and face. Sometimes it’s a disease. Nobody wants other people to know they’re diabetic. But if people want to take a position of advocacy, of persuading people about a disease or any other health or social issue, the anonymous voice is not generally persuasive. Whatever you’re writing becomes more credible the moment you have the name and the face.
Sometimes a degree of courage is required. It’s very easy to be graphic about something if you’re anonymous. That lack [of] credibility flows through the person to the reporter. In other words, the story loses credibility, but the writer of the story loses credibility too. It’s just a much more uphill climb to be persuasive when the source of the story is anonymous and when the writer of the story has said, “Yeah, I’m comfortable with that.”
AQ: You’ve had a long career in newsrooms across the country. Since you’ve started your career, the news business has changed quite a bit. The internet has become the new frontier – or maybe it’s become the normal frontier. How has this changed the debate around anonymous sources?
I’m content to leave the blogosphere full of anonymity. I have no desire to banish anonymity from the web. It’s not going to happen, anyway. It’s impossible to require it. But on a newspaper, which is changing fundamentally as the electronic world advances, the newspaper has to retain or has to have certain virtues that the electronic media do not have, do not enforce, do not require. What is it about newspapers that makes it different? It’s easy to list the defects of newspapers, they’re the slowest technology in the world. They’re the most industrial age product on the market. So what we do have? We have an authoritative voice that nobody else can match.
I watch the TV news and CBC does a great job of news coverage – and CTV. But it’s different. You can’t watch the news on TV and understand the world. You can get top of the line, you can get the news hit. But you can’t get the explanation, you can’t get the discourse, you can’t get the argument, you can’t get right into the knowledge of the thing.
Newspapers have this unique characteristic which is thoughtful, it’s meditative, it’s contemplative in some cases. It’s a private, personal experience and it’s a very important one in our society. I think that the newspaper can say, we’re not competitive in delivering in time, but can have standards that I think are more civilized and a code of conduct that requires us to reach a higher level of authoritative reporting, in-depth reporting, explanatory journalism. In all of those areas, if you’re going to have a discussion, a debate, whatever it is, the use of anonymous sources simply don’t help.
AQ: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
NR: I would almost respond with the words, “fair play.” Looking at 50 years of stories and corrections and mistakes and errors in judgement, I think the problem most frequently encountered is the unfair story. These are not always earthshaking mistakes. They’re not the big libel cases. These are stories where we reflect a consensus view on things.
I’m not sure that we are telling the other side of the story quite as much as we should. I think that is one of the big problems in journalism. What often happens is a failure to imagine the other side of the story. It’s a failure to treat every story as an investigative story, to go a little bit deeper. When we report superficially, we really hurt the trust level that we have with readers, often with influential readers, important readers.
One of the things I’ve noticed across my career is that owners and publishers of newspapers tend to be far more concerned about fair play than the journalists, themselves. There’s a little bit of indifference in most newsrooms on this question of fair play. And I think the profession does need to treat this as a more serious issue than it does.
AQ: Out of all the roles that you’ve had in a newsroom, which role have you liked the best?
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