The Old and Big Problem of the News Media

Mak Yin-ting

Every sector everywhere has its own big problem waiting to be solved. In the Hong Kong news industry, the anonymous “source” is one of those. The problem is becoming more serious: officials, political figures as well as organizations familiar with media operations are resorting to this tactic of hiding behind a veil of anonymity when dealing with thorny or sensitive issues. Regrettably, even the media itself is not properly performing its role as gatekeeper.

The Journalist keyed in the word ‘source’ for a Wisenews search. Between last March and May, there were 29.8 stories in Chinese newspapers quoting the unnamed “source” in news reports while the English language newspapers averaged 3.8 stories daily using unnamed “source”. (For details, please refer to the article headed Briefing replaces Government’s press conference.) This situation deserves serious reflection.

It is common practice for a responsible government to release information in an open manner. If further information is needed for analysis in complicated, important or sensitive matters, non-attributable sources may be resorted to. Thus a proper press conference, where the public gets its basic information and rationale for a particular policy, is a pre-condition for off-the-record or background briefings. It is an abuse of power for a government to use non-attributable briefings to take the place of a formal press conference.

A responsible media should not use non-attributable sources offhand in reporting, too, otherwise, the media will be opening the floodgates to unnamed sources to release information or comment in an irresponsible manner. The news media knows full well that non-attributable sources can be used if the identification of a source may seriously jeopardize life, or other interests are endangered as a result. Even so, such information should be used with extreme caution and must be double checked. The Washington Post report on the Watergate scandal is a typical case.

However, it is reprehensible for a newspaper to report an official line quoting an anonymous source. For example, in a report concerning the Chief Executive Donald Tsang's arrangements for a meal for pro-Establishment legislators to patch up relations damaged during the passage of political reform package, the report said “Hong Kong Government source stressed that Donald Tsang keeps close communication and contact with friendly political parties.” And it goes on to say “Donald Tsang will meet with pan-democrats. The source further stressed that the consultation of the new policy address will start soon, the chief executive will listen to views expressed by people in different walks of life.” Such an official line may not be reported by the media even if it is given out as a press conference. Is a newspaper so careless to simply refer to the spokesman as “the source”?

The carefree use of the anonymous source has become too common to ignore, especially for people who are familiar with media operations. Examples are numerous. It was used in the ATV controversy and in reporting of the Democratic Party members during the political reform controversy. The media even quoted a “source” as predicting that one fifth of the party’s members would quit if the party supported the package. The Journalist does not even know whether the reporter had asked how this prediction came about. However, it is debatable whether quoting a “prediction” of a non-attributable source is proper. Would it be an exaggerating if the reverse situation stopped passage of the reform package? Or was it just an irresponsible guess by someone confident that his or her identity would be covered up?

As a matter of fact, with all sources around, the media have to be a good gatekeeper and acted carefully. Otherwise, it would not be merely the right of the public to know that would be jeopardized, the credibility of the news media will be at stake, too.

Credible media like Washington Post and New York Times have specific provisions in their internal guidelines on dealing with quoting anonymous sources. We need something similar as well. It is a professional way forward for the Hong Kong media.