Two recent news stories that make President Trump look bad have launched important discussions about journalism ethics.
On Sept. 3, The Atlantic cited multiple sources who reported Trump’s disdain for military veterans who died in war. The president reportedly called them “losers” and “suckers.”
And then last week, The Washington Post unveiled details of a book by legendary Post journalist Bob Woodward. “Rage,” which comes out today, is based on a series of on-the-record, Woodward-Trump interviews at the beginning of the year.
The headline-grabbing revelation was Trump telling Woodward in February the coronavirus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus” at the same time he was telling the nation it was no worse than the seasonal flu and would fade away soon. Trump last week defended playing down the severity to not cause panic.
The Atlantic story, written by editor Jeffrey Goldberg, drew criticism for relying on anonymous sources for the accounts of what Trump said about veterans.
Woodward, meanwhile, got heat for waiting seven months to reveal what the president told him about the coronavirus. Critics contend Woodward prioritized the success of his book over revealing important information that could have changed the administration’s response to the pandemic – and possibly save lives.
Let’s look at these ethical questions one at a time.
Despite the role anonymous sources play in some of the most notorious examples of investigative reporting, journalists would actually prefer to not have to use them. Even though reporters and their bosses know the identity of the sources and are confident they’re reliable and their information is accurate, the reader will still possess a lingering level of doubt that what the source says is true – or even that the source really exists.
But in the high-stakes game of politics, especially presidential politics, guaranteeing a source anonymity is often the only way for a journalist to get at the truth.
"We all have to use anonymous sources, especially in a climate where the president of the United States tries to actively intimidate," Goldberg told CNN. "These are not people who are anonymous to me."
The Associated Press Stylebook, which serves as a guiding light for many journalists, addresses how its reporters should handle unnamed sources:
— The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
— The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
— The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.
Reporters who intend to use material from anonymous sources must get approval from their news managers.
Explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it's relevant, describe the source's motive for disclosing the information.
The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source's credibility; simply quoting a source is not allowed. Be as descriptive as possible about the source of information.
The ethics questions surrounding Woodward’s book has sharply divided those in journalism circles.
“Trump was the key vector of harmful misinformation,” tweeted Marc Ambinder, a former White House correspondent for National Journal. “We KNOW that his supporters BELIEVE HIM and altered their behavior because they thought COVID would be less harmful then (sic) the flu … cause that’s what Trump said.”
“Do we not at some point just say, hey publisher - I’m returning my advance and gonna report this now?"
Woodward defended the delay to Washington Post Media columnist Margaret Sullivan, saying he needed to confirm the source of Trump’s information about the severity of the virus, and that didn’t come together until May. By then, it was well-known the virus was spreading rapidly and infecting thousands. Plus, Woodward said, “the biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.”
In a world where I had some influence in how this played out, I would have pushed to release some details of Woodward’s interviews as soon as possible after Trump uttered those words of warning about COVID-19 in early February.
Woodward, after a long, distinguished career at the Post, is no longer in the business of being a daily newspaper reporter. He mainly writes books now. But that shouldn’t have stopped him in February from tipping off a Post editor, who could have assigned some daily reporters to dig into the story.
Would the revelation have prompted Trump to take a stronger public stance in favor of wearing masks, closing schools, canceling sports and shutting down businesses to curb the spread? I’d really like to say yes.
But I expect Trump would have still spun the Woodward interviews in much the same way he’s doing now – by saying he’s leading the nation through this by exuding confidence and optimism that everything is going to be just fine.
Even so, think about how the nation’s COVID-19 response would have been different if we knew what Trump knew in early February. Would Illinois have waited until mid-March to shut down schools and indoor dining?
Jason Piscia is an assistant professor and director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.
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