How to Lose Friends and Influence Lives
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