Today, I am going to highlight some of the reporting issues, as I see it, in modern main-stream media. Particularly how ambiguous quotes are fashioned into facts to feed a particular narrative. Both sides do this a lot. But Today’s focus will be on how news publications misuse sources and source material. A new fad seems to be the idea of ‘People Familiar with the Matter’ being used as sources.
To do all this, I am going to breakdown a news article on the front page of Today’s New York Times ( November 27 2019)
White House Budget Official Said 2 Aides Resigned Amid Ukraine Aid Freeze
Paragraph 1 and 2
” WASHINGTON — Two officials at the White House budget office resigned this year partly because of their concerns about President Trump’s decision to hold up congressionally approved security assistance to Ukraine, a third aide at the office told impeachment investigators, revealing dissent within a key agency about Mr. Trump’s refusal to release the money “
” Mark Sandy, an official at the Office of Management and Budget, testified that two of his colleagues quit after expressing concerns about President Trump’s decision to withhold military assistance “
First of all, the information in these opening paragraphs is based on the hearsay evidence of Mark Sandy. Basically someone said something about why two other people left their jobs. Two journalists then offer their opinion on what that someone, Mark Sandy, said.
The two reporters do not tell us whether they actually interviewed Mr Sandy or are just using his testimony.
Considering that the subject matter is the impeachment of the President of the United States, If the testimony of Mark Sandy, the source for the opening paragraphs, is available it should be quoted in full. The authors seem to have read the testimony so if the testimony is available then why not quote it?
Further into the article we seem to get brief snippets of quotes from Mr Sandy’s testimony. Why not just post the whole section of testimony relevant to this article?
The reason this is important is because the reader is being asked to believe the opinion of two writers about what the opinion of Mark Sandy was in relation to why two other officials resigned their positions in the White House budget office. The reader is left 3 times removed from the ACTUAL people who resigned and WHY they resigned.
While we are on this subject let’s quickly remind ourselves about Hearsay and what it actually means according to dictionary definition.
The headline and opening paragraph of this New York Times piece invite the reader to make an assumption that may or may not be true. The assumption is as follows:
That the two individuals resigned over their concerns regarding Trump’s decision to withhold military assistance. If you read paragraph 1 above carefully though, the authors say that the two officials resigned partly because of the decision to withhold aid to Ukraine. Paragraph 2 uses Mark Sandy’s testimony as the supporting evidence for this assertion. Except the evidence of that paragraph doesn’t actually support the assertion.
It says they quit after they expressed concerns about the decisions. The concerns could have been incidental to them quitting. This is why it would have been better to quote the testimony. We would have had VERBATIM evidence of what Mark Sandy actually said. One layer of hearsay would have been removed.
Paragraph 3 and 4
” A second co-worker, an official in the legal division of the office, also resigned after offering a “dissenting opinion” about whether it was legal to hold up the aid, Mr. Sandy testified, according to a transcript of his testimony released by the committee on Tuesday.
He did not identify either official, and it was unclear how senior they were or how directly their resignations were tied to their concerns over the withholding of the aid. But Mr. Sandy’s account of their departures — after weeks of unanswered questions inside the budget office about why Mr. Trump had directed the funding frozen — underscores the depth of the push back inside a key White House agency about a decision many officials believed was legally questionable and potentially dangerous. “
Paragraph 3 has the same problems as the first two. We have no idea if the ‘Dissenting Opinion’ was actually the reason for them leaving. Other than the reporters inference. Also the reporters fail to ask a very salient question. Does the person’s opinion count for anything?
Is he/she a Lawyer, administrative assistant, legal secretary or what?
If Mr Sandy is not prepared to identify exactly who the officials were or how senior they were in the administration then are we merely left with Office Gossip.
Overall, If the reporters had quoted from the testimony it would have been far more powerful and accurate for readers trying to form an unbiased opinion.
Paragraph 6 + 7
” Mr. Trump has insisted he never pressured Ukraine for the investigations or made the aid contingent upon them, and was instead withholding the money out of concern for corruption in Ukraine and a desire to have other countries pay their fair share. And his Republican allies have argued that the funding’s eventual release proves that Mr. Trump did nothing wrong “
” But the money was delivered only after a bipartisan outcry by lawmakers and after the White House became aware of a whistle-blower complaint that alleged Mr. Trump was using the funding as leverage. Two people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had been briefed on that complaint when he unfroze military aid for the country in September “
The main issue I have with the above two paragraphs is an insidious recent methodology of quoting sources.
” People Familiar with the matter”
There is absolutely no credibility in using ” People familiar with the Matter” as a reference source. It is not EVEN a step up from gossip. It serves one purpose as far as I can tell. It sounds vaguely legitimate.
I mean I am familiar with the matter and no doubt you the reader are familiar with the matter! – Does that mean we can be used as credible sources on the matter at hand?
If a source needs to remain unnamed then at least source the relevant branch of government from whence the information came. The persons ‘ Familiar with the Matter’ could be creditable. Unfortunately the persons ‘ Familiar with the Matter’ could also be not creditable.
The persons ‘ Familiar with the Matter’ could also be entirely fictional.
The phrase ‘ People familiar with the Matter’ does not actually commit the writer to saying they have an actual source.
And that is the big problem.
Paragraphs 12, 13 and 14
“It was an open question over the course of late July and pretty much all of August, as I recall,” Mr. Sandy said.
He equivocated when asked whether both his former colleagues resigned because of their concerns about the aid, making it clear that he drew the conclusion himself. “I’m always reluctant to speak to someone else’s motivations,” he cautioned.
“I never want to attribute that as the, you know, sole purpose for an individual’s actions, but I am aware of their frustrations in that area, yes,” he said of the official in the legal office.
It isn’t until Paragraphs 12-15 that the New York Times start to furnish some direct quotations from Mr Sandy to support the thrust of their opening gambit in paragraphs 1-4. With good reason. He never actually asserts that the two officials resigned because of the hold on Ukrainian aid. Let’s repeat what he actually said.
“I’m always reluctant to speak to someone else’s motivations, I never want to attribute that as the, you know, sole purpose for an individual’s actions, but I am aware of their frustrations in that area, yes “
There is another problem. It might be minor or it might be major. When quoting Mr Sandy’s words above they do not clarify if his quotes were coming from his testimony or from conversations with them.
They use the phrase
” He equivocated when asked ” for accuracy’s sake they should have reported it as
” he equivocated in his testimony when asked ”
Many people, including critics, often refer to the New York Times as the paper of record for the United States.
It needs to improve it’s record keeping.