Politico‘s Alexander Burns reports today that a senator’s aides are claiming a story published by Roll Call is false. His sources are a spokesman and an aide to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), both of whom vehemently insist on the record that their boss is not backing Mitt Romney for president as Roll Call‘s David Drucker reported Sunday at midnight.
With anonymous sourcing, anyone’s word can fly, especially behind-the-scenes experts who prefer to operate under the radar. But when should reporters trust the source who won’t be named and when should they exercise caution?
In this case, Roll Call did not back down. When asked for comment Roll Call Publicist Rebecca Gale remarked, “Roll Call stands by its story, David Drucker has relied on South Carolina political operatives for their analysis and insight, as explained and sourced in the article.”
Drucker reacted only on Twitter: “@JimDeMint’s spox take exception 2 my @MittRomney endorse story (I stand by it, fyi).”
Burns told FishbowlDC: “It’s not my job to critique David’s work, which I enjoy reading. His story drew fierce pushback from DeMint-world, and I reported that because I had previously linked to and quoted his piece. To be clear, I didn’t say that the story was a ‘fabrication’ – I would not want to speculate about another reporter’s sourcing and I see that he is standing by the report.”
Roll Call‘s headline: “DeMint May Endorse Romney.” Drucker reports that Romney is the “favorite” to receive DeMint’s endorsement. His sourcing? “Knowledgeable GOP sources.” More specifically, a “Republican with South Carolina ties” and a “GOP operative in the Palmetto State.” DeMint is quoted in Drucker’s story as saying he’s “real comfortable waiting.”
Burns ran a basic aggregate of the story at 7:16 a.m. By 9:20 a.m. he ran a second post saying that DeMint’s office was calling the endorsement a “fabrication.” Burns quotes DeMint Spokesman Wesley Denton, who told him, “That story is a fabrication made up of anonymous sources that obviously have no clue what Senator DeMint is thinking.”
Reporters know the built-in risks of quoting anonymous sources. Find out what a journalism expert has to say…
The pitfall is that the reader is left to judge between two sets of claims, both of which are suspect — in this case Drucker’s anonymous sources versus DeMint’s aides. Politico‘s Jonathan Martin shed light on this over Twitter after Burns’ second post went up: “Furious DeMint pushback on Mitt story reflects desire to a) have maximum juice in race til last possible min and b) staff contempt 4 Mitt.”
Dave Wilcox, a journalism instructor at the University of Wisconsin, teaches undergrads entry level reporting. He blasts both Politico and Roll Call for their reporting today: Politico for running with the post before DeMint’s spokesman challenged the story and Roll Call for running a story based on two anonymous sources. “You can go with one anonymous source that confirms someone else’s word on the record,” Wilcox said in a phone interview. “But two people who won’t speak on the record is invalid. We would consider that a fail. That’s from the perspective of teaching young journalism students.”
He gave Drucker leeway based on his experience. “If this reporter knew both sources and felt good enough that he could attach his name to it, it’s a reasonable risk to take given that you’ll never know if you can get a straight answer from a DeMint spokesman,” he said. Wilcox is less sympathetic to Politico. “To throw it out there and provoke more of an outburst seems kind of par for the course for Politico. Personally I would expect more Roll Call. Not necessarily from Politico.” Wilcox suggests Drucker should have said the sources “requested anonymity.” He reasoned, “Anonymous sources are great, but to ride with two of them is still sloppy in my opinion. The sad thing is, someone who wants to emulate that who doesn’t have responsible editing, they look at [this story] and say, well they did it. And Roll Call‘s awesome. That makes me sort of cringe.”
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