Authorship matters; sources matter

By Chris Mackowski

Last week, frothing with impeachment fever, a relative forwarded to me a Facebook meme purportedly authored by Clint Eastwood.

“People message me why I stick my neck out for Trump,” the meme said. “Why do I tarnish my reputation with a man that’s hated by so many?” The meme then went on to elucidate the many reasons Eastwood thought Donald Trump was worthy of support.

Except Eastwood didn’t write it.

I quickly verified Eastwood’s (lack of) authorship with Snopes.com.

But when I pointed this out to my relative, he said, “Doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter?” I asked. “Certainly something as fundamental as authorship matters, doesn’t it?” If the author was willing to play fast and loose with authorship, what else was the author willing to play fast and loose with? “Don’t you see,” I asked, “that lying at the beginning casts doubt over the credibility of everything that followed?”

To my relative, the answer was a simple “No.” Authorship didn’t matter. The material in the meme spoke to him, so the source of the material didn’t matter. It was a classic example of Stephen Colbert’s “Truthiness”: so long as it feels truth, then it’s true, whether it’s factually accurate or not. And much of the meme was, upon further investigation, flat-out wrong and other parts were intentionally misleading — but it spoke to my relative and so, despite the misrepresentation at the outset, was nonetheless valid.

To me, this underscored the vital importance of sources, which in turn got me to thinking about a question the Jandoli Institute posed just before the New Year: “How can we restore public confidence in journalism?” I didn’t answer at the time because, honestly, I’ve been flummoxed by this very question these days and could not come up with a credible answer. After all, this same relative told me a few weeks ago, “I don’t trust a thing I read,” and as a result, he tended to not read anything — except memes and Facebook posts forwarded to him by like-minded, right-minded people.

My default reaction is to encourage people to investigate things for themselves. Don’t take my word for anything, look around for yourself. Check multiple sources of different political leanings. Use Snopes and other fact-checkers. What can you learn about the source and their agendas and who funds them and their authority to speak on a particular topic? Put in the time rather than rely on the knee-jerk, self-satisfying gratification offered by memes and echo-chambers. As the old saying goes, if your mom tells you she loves you, get a second source. “Trust but verify,” Reagan said.

But if someone just flat-out doesn’t believe a thing he reads, how does any of that work?

This circled back to the dubious authorship of the Eastwood meme (and a similar one my relative had sent a week earlier purportedly written by comedian Tim Allen).

Authorship matters. Sources matter.

That’s Journalism School 101. We hammer into our students the need to attribute their sources. When I write historical pieces, I also have to be careful to source my material.

Journalists need to retrench around this idea. Specifically, we need to use far more discretion when relying on unnamed sources.

I realize many sources will only speak on the condition of anonymity for many reasons, including justified fears of reprisal, so it’s tempting to content ourselves with that knowledge and then just quote away. We’re protecting our sources, we reassure ourselves.

While that might be true, it also encourages shortcut reporting in a 24-hour news cycle that demands content RIGHT NOW. Instead of working a story to confirm the words of an unnamed source with additional reporting, reporters are under tremendous pressure to get their stories to air or to press. In that context, an unnamed source, corroborated by other unnamed sources, might be an easy-out.

A reader used to rely on a reporter’s credibility and good judgement in order to weigh the credibility of an unnamed source. Readers would also weigh the credibility of the reporter’s newspaper or TV station as part of that calculus. But now we’re in an era where public trust in the media is lower than it’s ever been in modern times. Reporters and editors and media don’t have the public’s trust the way they once did. That means “anonymous sources” are less trustworthy than ever, not just by the nature of their anonymity but because of the very people using those sources.

Other factors play into this, too. We all know how easy it is to say anything we want online due to the anonymity offered by the internet. That anonymity has eroded civil discourse. People can be obscene, vulgar, hateful. They can have a mean-spiritedness they would never let out in person. The internet has taught us that anonymity can be easily abused.

Anonymity can cut both ways, too, benefiting not just the media but the sources. I recall a scene from the TV show The West Wing in which a cadre of White House clerks, secretaries, and interns were all about to be sent out to speak with reporters as part of an aggressive public relations effort. “Why would anyone want to talk to me?” one lowly intern asks. The answer: Because, today, you’re “a senior White House official.” Whenever I see that term in print, I am reminded that there’s a vast difference between the White House Chief of Staff — an actual “senior White House official” — and a lowly intern merely told to call himself that as part of a propaganda effort.

We used to rely on reporters to use their judgement and make the call for us: Is a particular anonymous source trustworthy? People don’t trust the reporters to make that call anymore. The titillating story and juicy gossip seems to trump the need for credibility, as least in the cynical and untrusting eye of the modern reader and viewer.

Do I think journalists should abandon the anonymous source altogether? No. But I think journalists need to use it more sparingly. If that means a journalist has to work harder, then so be it; the times have changed and journalism needs to change with them, in ways that raise the bar, not lower it. If that means some bits of information can’t get reported right away, then perhaps it also means journalists aren’t stirring the pot with innuendo and rumor. That, in turn, might help cut through the noise rather than add to it.

As my relative demonstrates, people are glad to make cognitive shortcuts, even if they mistrust the media to make those shortcuts for us. Incorporating more transparency into our reporting, although hard work, can show people that we’re not taking shortcuts at all.

Chris Mackowski is a professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication, where he serves as associate dean of undergraduate programs. He is also the editor-in-chief of Emerging Civil War (www.emergingcivilwar.com) and the author of more than a dozen books about the Civil War.

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