BOB GARFIELD: For the Washington Post, the decision to counter sting Jaime Phillips and then write about it was unorthodox. According to Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, it was also tactical, a way to restore some faith in journalism, particularly among those who think we’re all fake news.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: The Washington Post has been very clear with its readers about how it went about its reporting. In the initial story about Roy Moore, the Post was extremely clear that the women didn't come to us, that reporters had heard something about this and gone to the various women and, in essence, convinced them to tell their stories. And this was put in the initial story. It was made very clear that this was the process. And that’s kind of an unusual thing to see in a news story.
Similarly, BuzzFeed recently was extremely clear about the source of its story about Representative John Conyers, that the initial information had come through Mike Cernovich who’s a right-wing provocateur.
BOB GARFIELD: And scoundrel and liar. He’s a creep, and yet, sometimes he’s got the goods.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: The information was worthy and BuzzFeed protected itself and informed its readers by being very clear about where the information had come from. So I think the more we -- and I'm talking about what I call the reality-based press; that’s my phrase instead of the mainstream media --
-- the reality-based press should do more and more of this so that people can understand how we work. I mean, I don't think that most people understand anonymous sourcing or the difference between an editorial and a news story. So I think we need to explain ourselves better.
BOB GARFIELD: What does that look like?
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Well, it looks like taking of paragraphs early in an investigative story, to say, here's how we did it. It means telling people, to the extent you can, who your sources are. It means publishing your documentation when you can. It means telling people about your methodology, printing and publishing primary sources.
BOB GARFIELD: To kind of footnote the journalism as we go about it.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: As we go along, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned anonymous sources. By definition, you can't explain who they are. And it's very, very easy for Donald Trump and Sean Hannity and various voices from the right to dismiss anything that is based on anonymous sources as “fake news” just out of hand, since the public doesn't really understand the rigor that is attached in a newsroom to the use of anonymous sources.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: That's right, and I think that's one of the reasons that when I was the public editor at The New York Times I really campaigned against the overuse of anonymous sources. In investigative reporting, particularly in the national security area, you sometimes have to use them. There's no other way to get at this information. But the overuse of them begins to really eat away at credibility, so I think they need to be used sparingly. The Times had a written policy that said, use anonymous sources only as a last resort but you'd see very frequently many stories that used anonymous sources and you'd begin to think, well, gosh, there are a lot of last resorts happening here.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it’s the coin of the realm that is at the heart of just about all political reporting and certainly in the palace intrigue stuff coming out of Washington. It's not just investigative stories, it’s damn near everything. How can we fix that?
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Well, I think to sometimes walk away from the story that’s only sourced anonymously and then, when anonymous sources are used, to tell people as much as you can about the source without revealing the source. Pin down who this person is without using their name, and that’s a process that you have to work out with the source, and then to give as specific a reason as possible about why they're not able to speak on the record.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you happen to be in Alabama where this whole Roy Moore story is playing out and, in this case, the Post acknowledged that it had sought out the women who made the accusations and explained how it went about corroborating their stories. But this yielded two effects, one, the narrative that it’s all invented by the Post, and the other narrative is all the women are lying for partisan political reasons or to somehow make money on the deal and that this innocent man is a victim. Is there anything that transparency of journalism can do to alter the thinking of people willing to buy that story?
MARGARET SULLIVAN: If they're now convinced that this is just a bunch of claims and counterclaims, and, in essence, I throw up my hands and say, it's all a bunch of lies, I mean, there’s really not much of a way to penetrate that. But for people who are truly interested in trying to figure out what's true and what isn't true, then I think when you're able to say, there are multiple named women who have nothing to gain who have come forward.
BOB GARFIELD: And who shared their stories contemporaneously with various intimates --
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- long before the Post ever knew they existed.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: If you're just hearing about the story from someone on your Facebook page, maybe you’d think that's not credible but if you bothered to look into it, I think you would find the Post’s reporting credible.
BOB GARFIELD: When the story broke about [LAUGHS] how the Post unmasked the would-be “unmaskers”
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: -- what was it like in the newsroom? Were people, you know, dancing [LAUGHS] around, hee-hee-hee, tra-la-la?
MARGARET SULLIVAN: No, it wasn’t like that. There may have been some sense of pride and satisfaction but hardly dancing around. I, I don’t see that at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Margaret, many thanks.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: You’re very welcome, Bob, good to chat with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for the Washington Post.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, dubious data and devious bots infect the net neutrality debate.