On 19 June, 2005, Oregon’s Mail Tribune reported that in a recent survey of 419 media outlets, nearly one-fourth of editors said they have banned the use of anonymous sources entirely — a good start. Yet most members of the press still claim they cannot manage their self-appointed duty as the “watchdog of government” without using anonymous sources.
One must ask, then, how the scientific community manages so well using only verifiable sources? No scientific journal editor would even consider allowing a reference to an anonymous source.
Thomas Henry Huxley defined science as “nothing but trained and organized common sense.” Scientific method might be similarly summarized as simply “telling the truth.” Science makes rigorous efforts to prevent self-interest, conscious or unconscious, from distorting the truth. In studies testing new medications, neither the physician giving the drug nor the recipient of the drug know whether the medicament being evaluated or a placebo is being given. These double-blind studies prevent distortion resulting from bias.
Richard Feynman wrote of “learning how not to fool ourselves” and of having “utter scientific integrity” as being part of “our responsibility as scientists.” Scientists are trained to understand how deceptively easy it is to believe what they want to believe and to recognize that they must constantly be on guard against allowing this form of bias to compromise the integrity of their work.
How much a given field of knowledge values the truth can be measured by the attention it gives to methods attempting to preserve the truth.
The steady stream of high-profile scandals in the mass media over the past several years — ranging from forged documents to trying to pass off fiction as news — indicates that media methods need some serious scrutiny. First, consider my title, Anonymous sources: A license to lie. I don’t mean to imply that reporters lie every time they cite an unidentified source. But consider: an anonymous source could mean no source at all — material simply made up by the reporter. A more widespread concern, however, is that human communications are rarely perfect. Did the reporter’s interpretation accurately portray what his source said? Or did he hear what he wanted to hear? Or did he paraphrase; allowing his bias to alter the meaning? The only way to know is to ask the source. That is why our legal system has cross-examinations; and why the accused is guaranteed the right to face his accuser. The use of anonymous sources almost guarantees that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth will not be transmitted with accuracy and precision.
As a scientist, I suggest that considering themselves the “watchdog of government” invalidates the media’s credibility by any objective scientific standard. It injects a massive anti-government bias that overwhelms the media’s well-known liberal bias. As the “watchdog of government,” the media needs to find government impropriety — or make it up if they can’t — to justify their existence. Such a bias would not be tolerated in science, in law or in any other honest field of human endeavor.
A profession considering itself the “watchdog of government” is an excellent example of the mass media fooling itself, believing what it wants to believe. I recall well when our media acted as the ministry of propaganda for the North Vietnamese: The media told the American public that the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a North Vietnamese victory. In fact, it was an unmitigated military disaster for the Communists. Our media repeated that lie incessantly until, finally, the American public believed them, lost patience and stopped supporting the Vietnamese conflict.
In World War II we had censorship of the media. We won that war. In the Vietnam conflict we suffered the consequences of allowing our mass media unrestricted access to flood our homes with grisly scenes of battlefield combat. These powerful images overwhelmed the emotions of a gullible public and destroyed all sense of perspective. Even if we had had the technology in World War II that we have today, broadcasting the photographs of all 12,520 combatants killed in the battle for Okinawa alone would have required a television channel devoted to nothing else.
That our media are now repeating their Vietnam victory by providing propaganda services to Al Qaeda in our war on terror should greatly concern us all. The American people had better grasp these facts soon if we are to prevent an out-of-control media, intoxicated with power, from providing the means for our enemies to destroy our civilization.
Dr. Martin L. Fackler served as a combat surgeon in Danang in 1968. He is a consultant and expert witness in wound ballistics.