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Seth Abramson @SethAbramson
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(THREAD) One of the subjects I teach at University of New Hampshire is journalism, so readers often ask questions about whether a given tendency they're seeing in major media is "good journalism." Without criticizing anyone in particular, I'd like to answer some common questions.
1/ First, I want to say that I think these questions are healthy—and discussing good journalism publicly is something that we can do without making it about personalities and institutions. As with any professional skill-set, no one who works in a profession is immune from lapses.
2/ Second, I want to say that nearly all the questions I get about journalism are about sourcing, which is understandable in the present political moment: the question of who we can trust—and when, and on what subjects, and in what fora—is critical to our democratic institutions.
3/ The first thing I'll say on sourcing is a very particular thing, as it's come up a lot lately: a journalist should never, ever—under any circumstances—use a criminal defense attorney speaking directly or indirectly about the topic of his representation as an anonymous source.
4/ Criminal defense attorneys—as I know from experience—,are bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct to act as zealous advocates for their clients. They *cannot* admit that their clients committed crimes, leak privileged information, or really offer anything but one-sided pap.
5/ For that reason, you can't ever use them as anonymous sources; anytime a reporter or author does so, it's a serious error of journalism because such sourcing fails *all four* tenets of journalistic ethics: Objectivity, Accuracy, Transparency, and Honesty (the OATH principles).
6/ Criminal defense lawyers also *can't* be used as *named* sources "for the truth of the matter" in a contested issue—they can only be cited as/for "what the defendant says." In other words, a journalist can't put a criminal defense lawyer on one side of a battle of credibility.
7/ The reason for this is the same reason they can't be used as unnamed sources: they're *professionally obligated* to sing a very particular tune—and they can't waver from it. This same theory applies to *any* source who is *obligated* to take a particular position on any issue.
8/ So those sources who are *obligated* to take a particular position on an issue—say, a publicist, a corporate spokesman, or, as I've said, a criminal defense attorney—can only be *named* sources who are quoted *exclusively* to let people know the "official" position of a party.
9/ So John Dowd, Rudy Giuliani, and other former/current Trump lawyers can *never* be used as *unnamed* sources by journalists without violating journalistic ethics. And they can *never* be used as a *named* source for *any* purpose other than establishing an "official position."
10/ When I was writing PROOF OF COLLUSION I chose—as a journalist, journalism professor, editor, attorney and former criminal investigator—to *never* cite defense attorneys for *any* proposition unless they were named *and* the proposition was establishing an "official position."
11/ A related point: a journalist can *never*, without violating journalistic ethics, "recreate" a conversation between two parties unless *both* parties have been spoken with and the journalist has adjudicated from those conversations what the likely truth of the matter was/is.
12/ To recreate a conversation *in full*—i.e. both sides of the conversation—having spoken to only one source is to create a *new* conversation that is too likely to reflect the self-aggrandizing viewpoint of one of the sources without giving the other source a chance to respond.
13/ A corollary of this critical journalistic sub-principle—perhaps, we might say, a sub-sub-principle—is that *if* a given source is *disallowed* from speaking to the press, a journalist cannot ethically recreate *any* conversation in which they were one of the primary parties.
14/ This is an important clarification, because there *can* be situations in which a party's *refusal* to speak to a journalist—depending upon how it's communicated—could be used by the journalist to determine that the *other* party's memory of a conversation is the reliable one.
15/ Take Mueller as an example. Mueller *can't* speak to journalists—so his refusal to do so cannot be used as a justification to recreate his side of a conversation. And because—say—John Dowd is an ineligible source, there should *never* be a recreated Mueller-Dowd conversation.
16/ By the same token, no journalist can use Dowd as a source *because* Mueller is unavailable as a source; Dowd is, as I've said, ineligible as an unnamed source and almost always as a named source—except for narrow propositions—and Mueller's silence is no excuse to go to Dowd.
17/ All of which takes us back up to the level of key journalistic principles—returning from subprinciples/sub-sub-principles—to note that the inability to get proper sourcing is *never* an excuse to use sourcing that violates journalistic ethics. *Never*—under any circumstances.
18/ Good *anonymous* sourcing means: a) not using a source who's lied to you once without finding two corroborating sources; b) not using a source at all who's lied to you multiple times; c) not using a source with a clear motive to lie without at least one corroborating source.
19/ You may have heard of triple-sourcing as journalistic "best practice" for contested issues, and that's true. But the reality is that journalists often do not have triple-sourcing for their reporting because they're reporting on issues for which you'd never find three sources.
20/ Journalists use a decision matrix to determine acceptable sourcing:

1) How many sources are there?
2) Are the sources anonymous?
3) How hotly contested is the issue?
4) How important is the issue to the story?
5) Have the sources lied before?
6) Are three sources *possible*?
21/ What's happened in the Trump era is the journalistic decision matrix for sourcing has collapsed. Why? Well, there are never 3 sources—it's always a leak; the issue is always important; the issue's always contested; the source is always a liar; the source insists on anonymity.
22/ My opinion, and it's just that, is that the right decision—faced with these facts—is to hew to journalistic ethics in reportage rather than accept a too-few number of anonymous, deceitful sources on a critical and hotly contested issue. But other journalists feel differently.
23/ Journalists making a different decision is not a big deal if (a) they are transparent about the decision they've made and why, and (b) they don't get their hackles up when either readers or peers offer critiques of their decision. This *has* to be a full, open, free dialogue.
24/ Another major journalistic principle that I think is misunderstood even within the academic discipline of journalism is that there are *dozens* of genres of journalism, and only *one* of them is the sort of hard-news reportage that I've been discussing in this thread so far.
25/ Other major genres of journalism besides hard news reportage include data journalism, service journalism, advocacy journalism, op-ed/editorial writing, feature writing, convergence journalism, curatorial journalism, aggregative journalism, photojournalism, video journalism...
26/ ...community journalism, investigative journalism, New Journalism, Gonzo journalism, interactive journalism, citizen/independent/freelance journalism, entertainment journalism, social news website management, autojournalism, tabloid journalism, churnalism, AR/VR journalism...
27/ ...as well as a host of journalism-adjacent writing modes that may slip into journalistic form/content on occasion—but not reliably so. There are also emerging modes like embeds, immersive journalism, creative nonpoetry, commercial journalism, and many others still stranger.
28/ The sourcing ethos is slightly different for each of these subgenres of journalism, so one downside to the robust conversations of sourcing-in-reportage we have in journalism-the-discipline is that we often forget to discuss these other subgenres and their many peculiarities.
29/ For instance, "New Journalism" involves writing a nonfictional story as though it were fiction—with scenes, characters, dialogue, and much else you'd expect from a beach-read novel. Sourcing standards in New Journalism can be a bit looser than they are in hard news reportage.
30/ The problem is journalists—me included—do a bad job of communicating to people the differences between subgenres of journalism, so when a book comes out (say) that's Trump-era New Journalism, we pretend it has the same sourcing standards as hard news reportage but it may not.
31/ Take this feed, for instance. It's not hard news reportage—and never tries to be. That's not the genre of journalist I am. But those who want to attack the feed use the fact most people think *all journalism is hard-news reportage* to imply I've somehow done something wrong.
32/ This feed is in the genre of journalism called "curatorial journalism." That's a genre with a different ethos than hard-news reportage in *certain* areas; it also places very different burdens on me than a hard-news reporter would have—but that *doesn't* make them any easier.
33/ For instance, a curatorial journalist rises or falls in major part on (a) his/her ability to adjudicate the reliability of original or institutional sources and (b) his/her ability to use investigative techniques to analyze, network, synthesize, and explain connected stories.
34/ This is what's called "horizontal reporting." It appeared in journalistic culture with the internet, which means print reporters *may* either not have encountered it, not understand it, or be hostile to it. And that's okay. But it also explains why Trump is so hard to cover.
35/ When I get upset about a book or article not being properly sourced, the *reason* I'm upset is that that book/article—or in some cases, even that *journalist*—has taken themselves outside the sphere of journalism a curatorial journalist can recognize. And that's frustrating.
36/ It goes from frustrating to a dilemma if the book, article, or journalist I'm momentarily disappointed by is one that doesn't recognize any journalistic genre but hard-news reportage—as it means they're disappointed in/hostile to me even as I'm saddened by what they've done.
37/ But that's a side note; the important thing is that when readers contact me upset about some piece of Trump journalism—which is daily and in numbers—it almost always has to do with someone who holds themselves out as a "reporter" using a sourcing method *reportage* disallows.
38/ Usually that sourcing method isn't being used because the reporter (or non-reporter journalist) doesn't know better, but because they think they've no other options in the Trump era. So they're frustrated—between a rock and a hard place—and it makes them especially sensitive.
39/ My hope, with this thread—which I'm sure seemed esoteric to many—is to help progress the conversation about journalism in the Trump era: why it's hard; what it requires of us; what conventional journalistic avenues seem foreclosed; how transparent we need to be with readers.
40/ The good news is that even failed journalistic enterprises—as nearly all are in some way—can be mined for value. The key is to not laud as perfect or attack as fatally flawed any one piece of journalism executed in good faith—or to claim any one journalist is sacrosanct. /end
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