'It is understood': How oblique sourcing is hurting Australian media
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'It is understood': How oblique sourcing is hurting Australian media

"What is this?" the Slack message, equal parts terse and dumbfounded read. This was a few years back, when I was working for a publication in the US. I'd filed a story I was quite pleased with, involving some as yet unreported but incremental developments in New York media.

Into the story copy I'd inserted a piece of journalese that is commonplace in Australia, but evidently, rarely used in the US. "It is understood... [something, something]" I had written. And my editor at the time had pulled me up on it. "You can’t write that," she sent me in a subsequent Slack message. "It makes no sense to me, or to a reader".

The media still has work to do in restoring trust

The media still has work to do in restoring trust Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Since then I’ve flinched whenever I’ve seen "it is understood", or "[insert outlet] understands" in a story, which it turns out, is often. The phrase and its variants like "it is believed" or "has learned" have become a proxy for "a source has told me something, but doesn’t want to be named. It’s as good as confirmed. So trust us."

These phrases are used all the time by the press in this country (and in the UK), by reporters far better and more accomplished than me. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age use them - including, no doubt, pieces I've been involved in. They are used in run-of-the-mill stories, where it is fairly obvious where the information is coming from, and in more sensitive and serious pieces of work.

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And the question is: Why?

Recently, BuzzFeed in the UK called out the public broadcaster in that country for using the phrase "the BBC understands", typically when re-reporting a story already published elsewhere. (After the BuzzFeed story, the BBC abandoned usage of the phrase. It's either true, or it isn't).

The ABC in Australia has also been known to "understand" things hours, days and weeks after they've been reported by other outlets.

Yet the usage of "understood/understands" in stories is not just about bragging rights over who got the scoop. More troublingly, it's also a disservice to readers. Why do you "understand" or "believe" this information being reported? On the basis of what?

"Confidential sourcing is a privilege of journalism that cannot be abused without seriously damaging public trust and undermining the profession’s raison d’etre," says Julie Posetti, a senior researcher with Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

"The problem with routinely reporting information gleaned as "understood" or "learned", rather than explaining how it was sourced (if not to whom it was sourced), is that it lacks transparency."

Now, I’m not for a second suggesting anonymous sources shouldn’t be used in reporting. Or that journalists, who go to great lengths to protect their sources, should stop doing that.

Just that some insight into where information is coming from, and the potential motivation behind it, is far a better approach to vague, meaningless journo-speak.

"Source protection is fundamentally important to the practice of investigative reporting but routine vagueness about sources isn’t helpful," says Posetti.

Last month, the annual survey by PR firm Edelman found that trust in the media in Australia remains lower than trust in government, business and non-government organisations.

Just 40 per cent of the Australians surveyed by the firm said they trusted the press. That is up 9 percentage points from last year, but still pretty dire in the scheme of things. In this light, standards around issues like sourcing should surely be higher.

For what it's worth, the corresponding figure for the US (whose head of state is currently engaged in a full blown war on the press) stands at 48 per cent.

The New York Times, which is booming in the era of Trump, has run into trouble with anonymous sourcing a few times in its history (its diastrous coverage of the Iraq War in the early 2000s springs to mind). The paper tightened up its policy on the practice a few years ago.

"If concealment proves necessary, writers should tell readers as much as possible - without violating the promise of confidentiality - to help them assess the source’s credibility," an excerpt from its current guidelines reads. "In particular, how does the source know the information? And does he or she have a stake in the issue?"

Over at the NYT, the simple, "sources said" won’t cut it either. "Blind attribution - sources said, for example - is more a tease than a signpost. Trail markers should be as detailed as possible."

It leads to the kind of detailed descriptions of anonymous sources you rarely see in Australian news.

Now, adopting this kind of approach would make it much harder for certain genres of Australian journalism to flourish (for example, reporting on leadership turmoil in Canberra, where politicians have arbitraged off-the-record privileges to destabilise their rivals).

But - as I understand it - it would also go some way towards boosting trust in the press. Which, in uncertain times like these, is crucial.

John McDuling is a business, media and technology writer for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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