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Woody: ‘Anonymous Sources’ Can Spell Trouble

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 27 2010

Not all of Kevin Harvick's battles were fought on the race track last weekend. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Kevin Harvick touched on one of the most tickling questions in journalism last week when he took the media to task for using an anonymous source in a story about a reputed team rift.

The story quoted an unnamed source as saying “Kevin has burned all his bridges” at Richard Childress Racing.

Harvick was furious.

“If you’re going to quote a source, quote their name,” he said. “Otherwise, if they’re too chicken to give you their name, don’t put their quote in the paper. It’s that simple.”

Actually, Kevin, it’s NOT that simple.

Sometimes a credible, reliable source will agree to speak to a reporter only if his or her anonymity is guaranteed. They fear repercussions if their identity is revealed, and often those fears are warranted.

Just because a source doesn’t want to be identified doesn’t mean the information he provides is not accurate. (Notice that Kevin didn’t deny the report; he just blasted the manner in which it was revealed.)

But the media has to tread carefully when it wades into this kind of water. Sometimes an anonymous source wants to remain secret because he has a personal agenda and is using the media to further it. Or because he knows the information may not be entirely accurate and doesn’t want to be held accountable.

My former newspaper had a strict policy against using an anonymous source in a news story except in rare instances – and then only after the information had been vetted through a chain of editors.

The policy cost me some scoops over the years when my sources declined to talk on the record. I once had to sit on a major coaching change, only to see a local TV station break the story a day later – quoting the same “anonymous source” that I wasn’t allowed to use.

In racing, such territory can be especially treacherous. There are close-knit driver and team allegiances – and, conversely, rivalries and personal feuds. There can also be sponsor repercussions; sponsors don’t like to learn about a team problem in the newspaper, nor does the team owner.

Usually someone with a team connection is taking a chance by talking to a reporter about a controversial subject.

For example, whoever provided the “bridge-burning” quote about Harvick and RCR is apparently an insider – and he likely won’t be working there any more if his identity is learned.

In a perfect world I would agree with Kevin – if a source isn’t willing to make his identity known and publicly stand by what he says, then the information he provides becomes suspect. But the world’s not perfect, and it doesn’t always work that way in journalism, especially with the advent of today’s no-rules internet.

The true test will be to see if the story turns out to be correct. Will more stirring victories like the one Sunday at Talladega sooth over any rift and pave the way for a continued working relationship between Harvick and RCR? Or will the anonymous source prove correct, and the bridges turn out to indeed be irreparably torched?

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 27 2010
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • Doug Hays says:

    Isn’t hard for us that can see the points of both sides of a position. How many articles would not have been written if an anonyomus source wasn’t the key. While on the same track , how many tales were spun from a misleading anonyomus source. What ever happen to when one had something to say, he said it for all to here. It’s much like New York now when people don’t want to be the one caught up in it. It’s a tough call but I have to side with letting everyone know the source so that we each can decide the validity of it and not just the reporter.

  • Richard in N.C. says:

    Well thought out,very good article. Unfortunately I am afraid that few in what passes for the press today care as much about the accuracy of what they report as they do about the notoriety and being first. Thank you.

  • Sharon Jones says:

    I agree with Kevin. Unless anonymous can give his or her name, it is just someone with a grudge or a coward wanting to start a rumor. Either way in Kevin’s situation, it is likely just suspicion or an opinion quoted as fact.

  • Bryan Tucker says:

    I think the one thing you failed to mention is that often times there is no (source) for the story and the so called writer contrived the whole story to stir up controversy and attention to his or her paper, blog or whatever they are selling. Bob Dilner comes to mind about his confidential source a few years ago when he went on national television and accused RCR of cheating by purposely allowing their tires to leak air or something to that effect. Childress whole company went after him and if you noticed he wasn’t on the air very much after that for a long time. If I were a member of Congress the confidential source non-sense would end today, by new Federal Laws.