How to Lose Friends and Influence Lives

As I've been thinking about "Anonymous Sources" this week, among other things. So has Jeff.

You just don't see the anonymous source used too often in wine writing and journalism associated with the wine trade. This must be the case for the most obvious reason. Wine criticism is worthless without a name or brand associated with it. Maybe I've been distracted the passed 20 years, but I can't remember too many cases when anonymous sources were liberally used by wine writers or journalists working on wine stories. That changed   this week.

Let me say this, I think the anonymous source is critical to journalism. Not all journalism. But some journalism. There are times when certain people have the information that rounds out a story, but in revealing their identity they compromise themselves or others. But, I think there must be a line over which a journalist doesn't want to step in their use of the anonymous source. I don't know exactly where that line is drawn, but I'm pretty sure it has to do with the number of them used in the creation of a story.

No writer or journalist ever asks a source to remain anonymous nor do they ever want their sources to remain anonymous. The reason for this is that the foundation upon which all journalism rests is credibility. And the credibility of the story, the writer and the media outlet always takes a hit when anonymous sources are used. Still, many media outlets possess such a cache of credibility that they can afford to use the anonymous source from time to time. Yet even the most respected media outlets tend to have policies that either ban or discourage the use of anonymous sources or demand that information provided by anonymous sources be corroborated by more than one person. It's just prudent.

Now, I can imagine cases where stories that entirely rely on anonymous sources are ok. For example, imagine a story in Section B about the strange appearance of full wine bottles lined up like bowling pins on a lonely lane with issues of the Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate lying in tatters around the bottles cum pins. Who cares if the group of senior citizens out on a midnight bird watching expedition discovered the incoherent modeling of bottles tell the reporter they'd prefer to remain anonymous. Maybe they were not supposed to be out of the nursing home that late. It doesn't matter. There's nothing at stake. It's a strange story, but there's no harm. There's nothing at stake.

But suppose numerous people are quoted anonymously in a story that has a great deal at stake. Suppose the story has a great deal at stake for employees, for families, for businesses, for investors, for the integrity of a legal process. And suppose those anonymous sources make outrageous claims about one party or another.

Isn't this the point at which the writer or the editor ought to ask if, with so much at stake, the story ought to rely on anonymous sources…and lots of them?

Believe it or not, reputations in the wine industry can be made and broken in the press, and particularly in the trade press. Those publications we rely on for solid information like Wine Business Monthly, Wines & Vines, Wine & Spirits Daily, Wine Industry Insight, Vineyard and Winery Management, The Press Democrat, Decanter Magazine, The Wine Spectator, SF Business Times, North Bay Biz Journal, Impact and others often define how we think about issues in our industry. They help define who we trust. They help determine who we work with. They must and most often do take their role seriously.

As a wine PR person I rarely have to deal these kinds of issues
. I'm most concerned with things like marketing strategies for new wines, proper samples strategies, product pricing, writing a good pitch letter, what competitions my clients should consider, and how to make sure my client is in a story on an appellation's latest vintage.

Not this week.

No. This week I lost a media contact and friend over this issue. This week I found myself nearly shouting at another over this issue instead of laughing and chatting. This week I spent time after hours thinking about who I could trust and who I couldn't, rather than spending time thinking about about the much more pleasant twists my life has recently taken.

Here's the bottom line: writers, journalists, bloggers, PR People…think deeply before you decide to do something that you know might skirt or even step widely over the ethical line. There might be something at stake. It might be your credibility or your integrity or other people's lives and livelihood

7 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - July 16, 2009

    Agree with what you say about journalists and anonymous sources, but without knowing anything about the incident you allude to, it’s difficult to endorse that both the situation and the result apply directly to the issue that you raise.
    You’ll find a story of mine soon enough in a trade mag, in which I cite every source but one. He was adamant to stay anonymous because, if I had used his name, he felt that he would lose business.
    It works both ways. But I would never even consider writing a whole article based on anonymous sources. Just wouldn’t seem credible to me, unless it was national security issues, which I doubt wine will ever be in the U.S.
    A journalist knows (should know) to keep the notes for future possibilities, and most mags know how to fact check. It helps when the editor also knows the identity of the anonymous source.
    Again, I generally agree with what you posted, and I often find a lot of so-called journalism to be nothing short of opinions without obvious basis.

  2. Thomas Pellechia - July 16, 2009

    Well, I now know the subject of your post.
    I agree with Jeff.

  3. Phil - July 16, 2009

    I have to agree with Thomas here Tom, I know the background of this story but if you were going to blog about it, you should have been a little more forthright in your blog (I know you provided links). If you couldn’t do that due to your position, then it’s not an appropriate topic for you blog.
    Having said that, the trouble with anonymous sources is that they are absolutely critical to whistling blowing activities and absolutely anonymous, sometimes have an ax to grind despite providing valid information, and can even be made up (I’m not saying I think that’s true in this case, just that it can happen). Strong editors are required to make this process work, as it ultimately should be their call, not the writer’s, as to whether or not this source(s) is legit. A major unintended consequence of self-publishing is losing that person who is a little more removed (and probably therefore has better perspective) on the situation.
    Best of luck with the rest of the auction process!

  4. Phil - July 16, 2009

    Let’s also not forget that Watergate relied on an anonymous source (and a hell of a lot of good reporting), so I think your claim that the more is at stake the less anonymous sourcing should be used is a little off. I think we’re all glad Woodword, Bernstein, and the Post didn’t decide that the presidency was too big a stake to use anonymous sources as the foundation of their reporting. The more that is at stake the more care should be used would be more accurate (which maybe is what you meant).

  5. Alice Feiring - July 16, 2009

    It’s hard to comment on a situation without knowing what the cards are, but right now, in this champagne story I’m writing, all of the juiciest bits are off the record. Which stinks. OTR quotes are great for me to find someone else to fess up, I usually treat them as leads. In one situation, and actually it was with Nicolas Joly in my book, he told me I could use his quote but I couldn’t credit him with it. Unfortunately, it sounded a lot better with his name attached to it than mine, so it stayed out of the book.
    People’s wishes must be respected. Yet, a balancing act has to be perfected for journalistic integrity.
    On my blog, where I am more spouting and less newsing, I often don’t name my source and as I’ve gotten used to this blogging thing, I often try to hide the quote or the situation so it is not uncovered in a Google Search. The reason isn’t because I’m chicken, just, as a journalist (for the time being that is, until there’s no place at all to place stories) I’m not looking to piss people off because of a blog and risk having them talk to me for a more public story.
    That said, what’s the story about TW?

  6. Thomas Pellechia - July 16, 2009

    Not to pick nits, but it’s that blending of “this blogging thing” with real news that I believe creates the blurred lines between opinions and facts.
    If there’s no other way, then we writers should explain clearly when we are opining and when we are reporting, and we should make sure that we don’t get ourselves confused by the two.

  7. Harry Schuhmacher - July 19, 2009

    Tom, I think you do yourself a disservice by shouting at and questioning the credibility of reporters who are trying to get at the truth on the New Vine/IBG story, particularly when you represent IBG, a fact you somehow left. You question Megan’s credibility in this blog post, but who has more credibility, an independent reporter like Megan with solid sourcing or you who is getting paid by one of the parties involved?
    I am Megan’s editor, and while her sources are indeed anonymous (as most sources are in an industry publication covering a sensitive topic), I know who her sources are and as an editor I view them as very solid. Just because “deep throat” in the Watergate scandal wasn’t revealed until last year doesn’t make him any less of a creditable source. Our sources here are not just observers, they are close to the situation. Otherwise we wouldn’t have published. The wine industry is ultimately served well by such reporting. And Megan followed up by giving IBG a chance to respond.
    Regardless, this bullying of reporters by you and IBG is just terrible business, and as someone who I’m sure respects the First Amendment, I’m surprised that you shouted at Megan and attempted to intimidate her, both on the phone, on your blog, and by clearly steering Jeff on his blog (right after he praised Megan on Twitter). But look, I know you and Megan will remain friends and will continue to have a good working relationship after this hiccup, but I must say I stand behind her completely on this one.

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