Readers of this blog may or may not recall my promise a while back to write about Daniel Okrent‘s visit to Stony Brook. (What? You haven’t been wondering about this? I can tell you it has been on my mind. The blog is a relentless taskmaster!) Okrent, the founder of New England Monthly, a longtime honcho at Time Inc., inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball and the first public editor at The New York Times, hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, had a lot to tell our students. Herewith, some high points of his visit, which included lunch with faculty, a talk to a journalism history class and a half-hour discussion with graduating seniors.
- On anonymous sources: “It’s the single largest complaint that readers have,” Okrent said, harking back to his two years as the Times ombudsman. “They just don’t believe it” when reporters attribute quotes to that journalistic Zelig, Mr. or Ms. Knowledgeable Source. Readers think “the reporter just made it up.” He gently mocked the verbal contortions The Times inserts to defend its use of K.S.: “who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter” and similar pretzel logic. The correct approach to protecting a source’s identity, Okrent said, should not be to tell the reader why the source wanted to remain anonymous but to explain why the reporter and editor “allowed this person to remain anonymous.” Ah, transparency: “to whom this newspaper granted anonymity to protect the reporter’s access …” Okrent also noted the English model, in which the reporter is assumed to have vetted thoroughly all the information he or she puts in print. “The byline stands in for anonymous attribution,” he said. “The authority of the institution” is put on the line. While this model is more in the nature of how news magazines or newspaper analysis pieces operate in the United States, he said, it would be a radical change for daily newspaper stories. Finally, Okrent said, there is the implied contract a reporter makes with a source when promising anonymity. Continue reading