Since the Chicago Headline Club announced plans for an annual journalism ethics award three years ago, the Reader has published a series of snide, poorly supported potshots at the award, its organizers, and its recipients, including me. One Reader piece described the award as a “well-meant gesture…doomed to fall flat.” Meanwhile, the Reader has consistently violated a key ethical tenet it has espoused for other publications.
Grant Pick’s January 9 cover story charges that ethics award winner Brad Cummings, publisher of the Austin Voice newspaper, fails to follow one of the “basic journalistic principles”–naming sources for allegations. While using unnamed sources is an accepted way of developing a story, Pick is right that good journalism practice calls for reporters to substantiate major points with identified speakers and documents in the final published piece.
Yet on a regular basis, Michael Miner, the Reader’s media critic/ ethics arbiter, quotes anonymous sources making defamatory statements–usually nasty personal attacks against people who are not prominent journalists or public figures. Miner even defended this practice in a column last year about a Chicago Ink reporter who embarrassed a Chicago Board of Education member by quoting him insulting a parent group. Miner called it a “huge mistake” for the reporter not to give the board member a chance to retract the statement, or at least conceal his identity. “It would have been honorable,” Miner wrote, “and it might also have turned out to be useful: indiscreet sources protected out of the goodness of a reporter’s heart often show their gratitutde by saying a great deal more on background.” Miner seems not to appreciate that while this may be a courtesy to the source, it is unfair to the subject and to readers. It allows people with axes to grind to take cheap shots without accountability, and it deprives readers of crucial information for judging the credibility of accusations.
At least Cummings has the excuse that if he names his sources, irate crack dealers or crooked cops might retaliate against them. Miner and the Reader, on the other hand, risk the terrifying prospect of being cut out of the media gossip loop.
PS: For the record, I’ve tipped Miner off to several story ideas and sources in the past, but I never intended to be quoted anonymously–and never was.