Are Reporters Obligated to Protect Competitors' Anonymous Sources?

The Washington Post's Ian Shapira is shocked, shocked, that a competing reporter would deign to speculate on who Ian Shapira's anonymous sources were. In how many ways is Ian Shapira wrong? Let us brainstorm.

Ian Shapira wrote a story last Saturday about the Washington Times being put up for sale. It featured unnamed insiders talking about the reasons for and machinations behind the move. Yesterday morning, Patrick Gavin wrote a piece at Politico about the Washington Times, and included a short and rather vague section speculating about who would gain by leaking various types of information about the sale to the WaPo, and why. This caused Ian Shapira quite a bit of angst!

"Who's doing the leaking?" he asked. I grimaced. Why would another reporter seek to expose anonymous sources?

Hmm. Perhaps because the motivation of anonymous sources to leak is a legitimate topic of exploration, that helps to enlighten readers? Or because Patrick Gavin covers DC media, and the Washington Times is part of the DC media, as is the Washington Post, therefore making a WaPo story about the Washington Times doubly relevant, to Patrick Gavin? Or maybe just because other people who happen to work in journalism have no obligation to protect Ian Shapira's anonymous sources? That is actually your job, Ian Shapira!

But it's rare for journalists to try to out a competitor's unnamed sources.

Really? We do it fairly regularly, if there's a good reason to. (Not that we are "journalists.")

To Gavin's credit, he didn't actually create a list of names of people who might have been my sources, but his speculation about even just one name bothered me. I cringe when I see journalists speculate about the identity of another reporter's source. It feels as if they are violating an unwritten code.

This "code," Ian—it is unwritten for a reason. Because it doesn't exist. One of the worst things about DC journalism is its pervasive air of clubbiness, the sense that the reporters there care more about careerism and backslapping and access and the shitty Georgetown social scene than they do about reporting relevant facts to readers. Surely, there are plenty of good political reporters, and the internet has done a lot to erode this atmosphere. But when, for example, a Washington Post reporter publicly cries that a competitor who covers the DC media beat is somehow obligated not to write about information that would clearly enhance his readers' understanding of a story for the simple reason that it could make some anonymous sources annoyed at said Washington Post reporter—well, it doesn't look good.

Or perhaps Ian Shapira has discovered what bloggers learned long ago: Complaining about what other people do with your stories gets far more attention than the stories themselves. Conflict, people love it!

[Disclaimer: You may decide that we are not unbiased regarding Ian Shapira.]
[Disclaimer 2: Please click on and read the full post by Ian Shapira of the Washington Post, who deserves credit for his work. Pic via.]