You might have noticed that when we ask questions of government departments or local authorities, we often attribute the answers to an unnamed spokesperson.
We didn’t always do that. When we started out two years ago, we named everybody by default. But, gradually, press offices contacted us to complain that we were naming their spokespeople and that wasn’t done.
This has been something we’ve pondered in the office. After all, we try to have strict rules around unnamed sources, for a few different reasons.
A Matter of Trust
Most journalists would agree that the default position should be to name those we quote in our articles.
Back in 2005, a survey by the Associated Press and Associated Press Managing Editors in the US found that 44 percent of readers said that anonymity made them less likely to believe what they read.
Admittedly, they were probably thinking of slightly different situations to the one I am thinking of here.
I’m not talking about anonymity for sources who are stepping out of line to leak information they think the public needs to know, or those who fear for their lives or livelihoods. I’m talking about people who are toeing the line, doing their jobs.
After all, in cases where we quote unnamed spokespeople, we make it clear the department or organisation that they work for. Their employees know who they are.
But as issues around trust in the media grow, it’s more important today than ever that we do what we can to help readers believe us.
The recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that only 47 percent of people surveyed in Ireland either strongly agreed, or tended to agree with the statement “I think you can trust most news most of the time.”
That’s higher than the international average found in the survey – but still under half of those sampled.
We can’t just say “trust us” to readers. We have to back up what we are saying, so they can check it, interrogate it, and then make a decision about whether to trust it.
So at Dublin Inquirer we try to have clear attribution, link to sources and documents, and be as transparent as possible about where we have gotten information from.
I’m also conscious of criticisms that journalists in Ireland are too close to the government or to the establishment.
There was an angry social-media response to reports that there was off-camera coaching for an RTÉ interview with the new taoiseach’s family, or that questions were given in advance during radio phone-ins around the budget – and that this was hidden from viewers or listeners. We need to make it extra clear that we are not giving special treatment.
Others who might be more vulnerable than press officers go on the record all the time, whether they are whistleblowers determined to stand behind their claims, or people accessing council services who think they are in a vulnerable position when criticising the council.
So why do we journalists have one rule for some, and another for others?
A Matter of Ethics
In its ethics guide for news organisations and start-ups, the Online News Association takes a pretty clear stand on whether spokespeople should be unnamed.
“Journalists should be especially reluctant to quote a spokesperson without using her name. If she’s speaking for an official, organization or company, she should be on the record,” it says.
Others agree that the default should be to have quotations and comments on the record.
“I think that the norm should be that people are named,” said Michael Foley, a professor emeritus at the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. “Where people are not named, there needs to be a good reason.”
He did a study several years ago looking at front-page stories in the Irish Times and found that 90 percent of stories were relying on an unnamed source – probably the government press secretary, who always used to be anonymous.
If you were a journalist, you could quite easily identify where it had come from, but members of the public probably wouldn’t have been able to, he said.
He said that has improved a bit, as journalists often now attribute information to a “government source” at least, so readers know it’s coming from the government side.
But what started in political journalism has seeped into other beats, he says.
“I think that practice, that grew up first amongst political journalists in what was a copy, I suppose, of the British lobby system, has gone into other areas of journalism,” he said.
Foley said there are cases when journalists even give anonymity to PR people.
“I think some journalists like it, as it does sort of give you a (…) edge. You look like you are doing great investigative work and all you are doing is talking to a press officer.”
“You know, ‘Sources last night indicated that.’ You look like All the President’s Men, but it isn’t really at all,” he said.
Press officers in government departments say they don’t want their names used because they’re not speaking for themselves.
“Officials in the Press Office who reply to queries are not speaking personally, they are responding corporately, reflecting the Department’s policy, view or position on an issue,” said a press officer for the Department of Housing.
“It is for this reason that we don’t believe it is appropriate to name them,” she said, by email. She asked not to be named, for the reason above.
Arguably, though, these press officers are doing a job that’s quite similar to what journalists do a lot of the time – collecting information from experts, and relaying it to the public – and we are generally expected to put bylines on our articles and stand over them.
A press officer for Dublin City Council made a point similar to that made by the press officer for the Department of Housing – that the response is from Dublin City Council as a body.
“It is not practical to attach names as it is not their personal profile that people are interested in, it’s the business,” she said.
She also said that it can lead to problems if we name press officers. “The difficulty this raises for us is that members of the public, journalists and people working in the area, then contact this staff member who they perceive as the expert on the topic,” she said.
Patrick Forsyth, the head of communications for the Department of Justice, said he thinks it is important to consider the context of the government structures.
His department gets well over 1,000 press queries a year, covering a wide range of policy areas: immigration and asylum, equality policy, crime, property registration, and others.
Some people ask for facts or statistics, and others are highly political, he said. “The vast majority of these queries are dealt with by our three-person Press Office, who coordinate with all the other areas of the Department in order to obtain a response.”
If it’s a simple request and they have the info to hand, the press office can turn it around quickly. But “in most cases, the query will have to be forwarded on to at least one and sometimes several areas of the department”, he said.
“On most occasions, this response will be cleared by the Minister’s Advisor, or sometimes by the Minister themselves. It is, after all, the Minister who is held politically accountable for the actions of their Department,” he said.
To him, that’s the nub of the issue: that civil servants implement policies decided upon by ministers in a democratically elected government. If the ministers change, civil servants are expected to implement any new policies with equal zeal.
“Furthermore, under the Carltona doctrine, the acts of civil servants are in most cases regarded legally as acts of the Minister,” he said.
That’s why he doesn’t think that identifying the person, or people, who have contributed to a press query would add value.
“From the media’s perspective, I don’t see a big difference between a comment from a ‘Departmental spokesperson’ and a named individual; in both cases the journalist puts in a query and gets a response on behalf of the Minister and/or Department,” he said.
Naming the Original Source
Should we be seeking out the original source of the information within the department? That’s not that simple it turns out.
“Most responses are provided by more than one individual and some may necessitate responses from several different departments,” said a press officer for Dublin City Council.
That would make it hard to attribute to one place.
But some say that could be helpful to do where possible – if it meant that a journalist would be better able to assess the quality of the information that is passed on.
“For example, I would have liked recently to know if information we were sent from a particular department which was numbers-light was in fact the work of an economist or just the speculation of a random civil servant,” said Susan Daly, the editor of TheJournal.ie.
“It would have helped evaluate the seriousness with which the department was tackling the particular issue we were making enquiries about,” she said.
When it’s possible, it might benefit government departments for civil servants to speak directly rather than through spokespeople sometimes, says Forsyth, the head of communications at the Department of Justice.
That could involve “named civil servants in particular policy/operational areas talk publicly in factual terms about the work they are doing, including why it is done in particular ways,” he said.
It is something that people see at Oireachtas committees. “This could benefit us in terms of increased public understanding of our work, and it is something that we are looking to do more of,” he said.
Room for Flexibility?
When it comes to deciding whether to name spokespeople or not, there is probably room for a bit of flexibility, says DIT’s Foley.
In his view, the practice should be to name people where possible, but at least give their job. “Maybe I’ve mellowed, or something, but I think what the public has a right to, is to know the source of the information,” he said.
“So if the information comes from the spokesman for a particular trade union or whatever it might be, I think it’s probably alright,” he says. “If they really object to it, I wouldn’t go to the wall on that.”
What about the concern that people might be less careful with what they are passing on, if their name isn’t on it. Is there a risk of more half-answers or ignored questions in those cases?
Forsyth of the Department of Justice says that implies that a lack of care is taken in the first place, and that that isn’t true.
“If the reasoning is that naming individuals would bring more accountability, then again I would have to disagree; naming people would represent a small cosmetic change, particularly in comparison to the substantive accountability mechanisms that already exist,” he says.
Daly of TheJournal.ie sees it a different way: she says the fact that people might be less careful would be a key argument for not naming them.
If a comment will only be published with a name attached, you are less likely to get useful off-the-record context and background from a spokesperson, she said.
“What you will find is a spokesperson terrified to stray from anything other than the safest, stiffest party line for fear that they are penalised by their superiors for ‘giving too much away’,” she said.
Communication reps are tasked with controlling the information being given to the media, she said.
“If you are in the business of having to build a relationship with those charged with those duties, and you are going to be trying to access information through them on a daily basis, you have to work within those limitations and give yourself the best possible chance of keeping the flow of information open.”
“If that requires giving your point of contact confidence that you are not always going to hold them personally accountable or publicly shame them, then that’s what it takes. You have to be realistic,” said Daly.
There is a tension, there, though, and that is healthy, says Foley: “The tension that should exist between public relations and journalism is seen quite often, increasingly, as some sort of childish disorder on the part of journalists, and I don’t think it is.”