The New York Times this weekend explored the London Daily Telegraph’s British-MPs-exploit-expense-accounts scoop (or, rather, scoops – they dished out the details bit by bit over several days, milking their investigation for all it was worth). It spreads the rumour that the Telegraph paid for the information (a faux pas, at least among the upper class of the British press).
The Telegraph, which doesn’t confirm nor deny the rumour (usually an indication that it’s true), throws in this quote (emphasis mine):
“One of the great rules of journalism is that you don’t discuss your sources, so long as you establish the information is reliable and in the public interest,” said Benedict Brogan, assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph, in an e-mailed statement.
Is that really a rule of journalism, much less a great one?
I don’t think so. Some sources require protection, the Deep Throat-like ones who come forward with important information but can’t be identified because they could lose their jobs or worse for leaking something to the media. But recently the granting of anonymity has become commonplace, given to random people on the street giving their opinion about things because they just don’t want their full names in the paper. (Not that knowing their names really changes anything, mind you.)
Not discussing where you got your scoops isn’t a great rule of journalism, it’s an unfortunate consequence of newspaper competition, and one of the places where journalism takes a back seat to self-marketing and self-congratulation.
I’m not necessarily saying that the Telegraph shouldn’t have paid for the information, provided it treated it with the highest amount of skepticism. Nor am I necessarily saying it shouldn’t disclose who or what sold them the information (though a discussion of their motivation would certainly be helpful). These are grey areas of journalism ethics.
I’m saying that when the Telegraph hides this information from the public, it shouldn’t be proud of it.