Says who? Sources lack value when they are unnamed and wrong

One of the first things we teach in reporting is that you need to find sources with knowledge of the topic you are covering and interview those people so you can tap into that knowledge for the betterment of your readers.

The next thing we teach students is that those sources need to be named. The rationale is that naming a source gives the readers a better sense of how much trust they should place in that source. It also prevents the source from being a weasel or saying things the source wouldn’t otherwise say.

In a previous post, we groused about the ways in which sports journalists tended to bend that rule frequently, relying instead on “sources” or “a source” or “people with knowledge of the situation.” After the post ran, several sports journalists and journalism profs took me to task over this criticism, noting that “if we didn’t give people anonymity, they wouldn’t talk to us” and “this is standard practice in this part of the field.”

My point was that a) this violates the basic ethical standards we outline for journalists and b) it can come back to bite you in the ass. Case in point, the Wisconsin Badger football team hired Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell as head coach, which meant that interim head coach and presumed favorite for the full-time job Jim Leonhard had a decision to make about his future. Leonhard could return to the team in another position or leave it and go elsewhere.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s largest paper, led the coverage with this big scoop about Leonhard’s future on Saturday:

MADISON – Jim Leonhard has decided to return to Wisconsin in 2023 under new head coach Luke Fickell, likely as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Leonhard met with Fickell on Wednesday and took time to mull his options. Leonhard was expected to meet with the team Saturday to tell the players about his decision, according to a source.

Turns out, the writer was wrong, which the world found out about when Jim Leonhard  took to Twitter on Tuesday to announce he was leaving the program:

It’s not just that the writer got the story wrong, which every journalist does from time to time. It’s HOW he got it wrong. It’s also what was and wasn’t noted in that first story.

In the original story, we don’t get a comment from Jim Leonhard saying he is staying or leaving. It doesn’t even say the writer attempted to contact Leonhard, or if Leonhard issued a “no comment,” or whatever. That would seem to be a basic journalism move. Instead, we have “a source” which could be anyone from former Athletic Director and program God Barry Alvarez to Mittens the Cat.

We also don’t get a confirmation from Fickell saying Leonhard was staying.

What we DO get is a large section of quoted material in which Fickell talks at length about telling Leonhard he needs to think it. This soliloquy is then followed by the writer then stepping in with the “Voice of God” to not only declare Leonhard was staying but to provide a judgment about Leonhard’s personal values:

“I told him,” Fickell said Monday: “‘You’ve got a lot of things to think about. You’ve got to figure out where you want to be in five years and where you want to be in 10 years. … That is going to help you to figure out where you want to be next year.’

“That’s not easy. There’s a lot of things we all have to be able to get over. It takes a special person in some ways to get over a lot of those things.

“I had a hard time with it. But I do believe it was the right thing for me and the way that I did it and went out about it and it helped me become who I am.

“But my way is not always the right way. It’s not the way for everybody else. But that is what it really comes down to. What is in your heart and what is in your mind?”

Leonhard has revealed that by deciding to stay at UW.

OK, so now that Leonhard ISN’T staying, what has this revealed, o’ wise and powerful seer of things to come? How shall we detail this declaration of heart and mind? Well, with a little more straightforward news and a little less personalized allegory:

MADISON – Jim Leonhard announced Tuesday night he will not return as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator in 2023.

Leonhard plans to coach UW through the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, set for Dec. 27 in Phoenix.

“It has meant the world to me to be able to pour my heart and soul into the UW football program for the last seven years,” Leonhard wrote on Twitter. “After discussions with my family and Coach Fickell I will remain DC through the bowl game but will no longer be part of the staff after the conclusion of the 2022 season.

“It has been an honor to coach these young men and thank you to all the fans who supported us along the way.”

The writer also then does the “I’m not going to say I was wrong, but I have to correct the record” thing:

Sources told the Journal Sentinel last week they expected Leonhard to stay on in 2023.

First, this is weaksauce. You went from “LEONHARD IS A MAN OF PRINCIPLE AND GREATNESS WHO REVEALED TO ME THROUGH A KNOWING SOURCE HE IS STAYING HERE” to “they expected Leonhard to stay.”  Second, we went from “a source” to “sources” somehow, which unless the Journal Sentinel owns one of these, I don’t see how it happened:

If you take nothing else from this, consider these key points:

  • Unnamed sources put you in the danger zone: Unless you get a name on it, you’re taking a risk. The degree to which you feel that risk is necessary is a personal one, but don’t be surprised when things go to hell in a speedboat.
  • Get it from the horse’s mouth, or at least try to: Don’t run off and think because one person (or cat) has confirmed something you desperately want to write about, you are done with the work. Take the extra steps and then show people how you took those steps.
  • Stay out of the story: You’re a journalist, not a soothsayer. Tell me what happened, tell me how we know it happened and keep your own personal declarations  for the bar after work.

POST-SCRIPT: “Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone has come back to haunt me.” Full disclosure: I misspelled Leonhard’s name in the first draft of this and forgot the word former before Barry Alvarez in terms of being AD (I just think of him as eternally in that position of God of Wisconsin). This was the work of a stupid person, who operates without an editor and needs to occasionally be reminded not to be the asshat he accuses others of…  (h/t to journalist Jason McMahon (whose name I actually made sure to look up) for the correction and the piece of humble pie.)

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