The Source of Problems

Former Mississippi head coach Houston Nutt ignited a firestorm Wednesday when he announced a lawsuit against his former employer, Ole Miss –along with head coach Hugh Freeze and Athletics Director Ross Bjork.

The lawsuit also creates an embarrassment for several leading college football journalists.  Nutt cited articles they wrote, claiming that Freeze, Bjork and Kyle Campbell (associate athletics director for communications) had served as anonymous sources for reports and tweets that defamed Nutt.

The lawsuit claims that Freeze, Bjork and Campbell spread misinformation that the NCAA case against Ole Miss significantly focused on violations during Nutt’s tenure.

A simple Web or Twitter search identifies the journalists involved. It must be stressed that these are allegations, part of a lawsuit advancing Nutt’s legal interests, which at this stage of the case is a weak form of confirmation.

The journalists whose words were cited (though they were not identified in the lawsuit) include Pat Forde of Yahoo, Chris Low of ESPN, Neil McCready of the site and David Brandt, AP sports writer for Mississippi. McCready has already ridiculed Nutt’s allegations on Twitter.

These allegations are pretty damning, because according to my ethical standards (and I’m assuming theirs), they should never have allowed Freeze, Bjork or Campbell, or their representatives, anonymity to pass along such information.

If you haven’t noticed, anonymous sources have been a hot topic of debate, with President Trump tweet-blasting the practice.

In politics and in college football, the principles for anonymous sourcing are the same.  To identify the main issue in this case, read this from the SPJ Code of Ethics, which is followed by many journalists:

“Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm.”

Following that standard, Freeze, Bjork or Campbell would not be granted anonymity, because their motives were clearly self-preservation, not a disclosure of truth that would put them at serious risk.

As part of the process, a reporter is expected to identify the anonymous source to a superior. That not only safeguards the reporter’s credibility, but it would also provide the outside perspective of asking, “Why are we not demanding that the Ole Miss coach/AD go on the record?”

Another factor is at play here: Eventually the allegations would be publicized, and at that point the information of who was mentioned, Freeze or Nutt, would be clearly identified.

The Houston-to-Hugh ratio would not be kept locked up for perpetuity; it would be disclosed. The reliability of the anonymous source’s information could be clearly judged.

From that perspective, Nutt’s case would best be pleaded in a press conference, not a court case.

You can tell that I am giving these journalists the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they would not allow themselves to be manipulated in that way.

As the case progresses, we might get a clearer picture of what actually happened. We might not. It puts the journalists in an awkward situation, perhaps undeservedly in terms of protecting their credibility.

For all journalists, however, it serves as a good reminder: Save the anonymity for sources who need it and deserve it — not for powerful, well-known folks seeking to save their own hides.

UPDATE: Ultimately, none of the journalists named denied on any public forum that I was aware of. Thus, we can conclude that they, indeed, allowed themselves to be manipulated by high-level sources to grant them anonymity — a regrettable ethical decision.

Auburn journalism professor: Joe Schad’s ESPN report on Manziel raises questions about credibility

First published on Find it here.

When ESPN’s Joe Schad reported on the Johnny Manziel autograph allegations Tuesday, those who follow me on Twitter (shameless plug — @John_P_Carvalho), you saw me tweeting a lot of questions.

These questions reflect the kind of issues we talk about in journalism as it relates to such issues as source credibility and anonymous sources.  So here, with more than 140 characters, are some of these issues.

First, a complaint about reality.  I recognize that ESPN is in a rush to stay ahead on this story.  I am not suggesting that they gaze at their navels for days, meditating on principle while the story passes them by.  But some additional steps would enhance their credibility and maybe help the reader understand the story better and trust the reporting more.

Now, on to the problems:

Problem #1: Source credibility.  I do not know much about autograph brokers, but they don’t seem to rate high on the respect scale.  They seem to prey on the naivete of both athletes and sports fans.

Journalists deal with this all the time.  Perhaps a paragraph of discussion in the article, along with a link to a sidebar on these brokers, would enlighten the audience as to ESPN’s awareness of whom they are dealing with.

Source credibility was a big issue in an important libel case, Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967).  You’ll have to do your own Google search for the case details; it does involve allegations of cheating against Bear Bryant, to whet your appetite.  One thing that worked against the Saturday Evening Post was that the main source for the article had served jail time for fraud.

Problem #2: Granting anonymity.  Perhaps no ethical decision is abused more than this.  Journalists recognize that granting anonymity immediately causes the audience to doubt the source, so we try to make sure the source has a good reason for requesting anonymity.

This source would claim a valid reason for requesting anonymity.  He (Schad identifies him as a male) could lose business if he is identified as the source for the video.  But when a source in a shady business (see Problem #1) seeks protection, the cringe factor increases.  Granting anonymity to the wrong source can make the reporter look like a dupe.

The responsible thing to do is, within the article, include a paragraph or two explaining the decision and explaining how the source fits in to the story and the situation.  In other stories (granted, involving more credible sources), you frequently see a sentence like, “The sources requested to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to release information on the case.”

Another responsible action, which I would wager Schad did, would be to identify the anonymous source to a superior.  This is SOP for any journalist.  Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee knew the identity of “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men.  Which relates to the next problem.

Problem #3: Selling videos.  While the cell phone video has what would be explosive content, if true, ESPN was correct in not paying the autograph broker for it.  While some tabloid publications/websites might, most traditional media outlets do not pay for interviews or documents.

In essence, the autograph broker was damaging his own credibility here.  Schad’s story does not specifically say that the revelation of the video’s existence set off some kind of bidding war, though I can imagine the broker got at least a few offers.  In offering it for sale, he seems to be out for personal gain more than anything.

What is confusing, however, is who actually saw the cellphone video.  Did Schad alone see it?  Or did someone else see it?  The story is unclear here, because it uses the terms “Schad” and “ESPN” interchangeably.  (In these situations, I usually write a comment in the margin that says something like, “Networks don’t view videos; people do,” and have my student clarify.)

As with the anonymous source, it would be safest for two people — Schad and someone else, preferably a peer or superior — to view the video.  That not only increases the story’s credibility, but demonstrates ESPN’s commitment to cover its bases.

I’m not claiming that these are situations where ESPN and Schad failed.  I am saying that these are potential pitfalls that should be addressed in the presentation of such reports.

It’s one reason investigative reporting is such an arduous and costly enterprise.  In the classroom, we teach our students not simply to take such situations and run with them, but to evaluate and appraise and ask and decide, and then to communicate those decisions.

(Side note: Critics always claim that college students should not major in journalism.  This is an example of why it is a good reason to do so.  Better to cover this stuff in the classroom, before it runs you over in a job-related situation)

I doubt ESPN reps or Joe Schad will answer these questions because of what I write here.  Let’s hope they answer these questions in their articles because it represents solid, responsible investigative journalism.