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It must be true—some unnamed guy said so

‘Tis the season of election speculation. Here come the anonymous ‘experts.


 
In must be true-some unnamed guy said so

CP; Reuters; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

Have you heard the exciting news? According to the Parliament Hill press gallery, there’s going to be a federal election this spring. Or this fall. Or next spring or later next spring or next fall or eventually. And you can take that prediction to the bank, Canada! (You may want to postdate it.)

Election speculation stories are great because they afford a journalist the opportunity to fill time or space without resorting to obsolete rituals like conveying useful information. They’re certainly easier to write than articles that require boring things like facts and thinking.

Here’s just one example from the recent past: “[Michael] Ignatieff delivered what was being billed by the Liberals as a major speech about Canada on the international stage,” a reporter wrote during the last wave of intense elec-spec. “However, his message about Canada’s place in the world was lost in the all the breathless speculation about an election.”

This is a classic media move: reporters write about how one event was overshadowed by another, but do so in a way that ignores their pivotal role in the overshadowing. The passive tense is critical here—Ignatieff’s message “was lost.” Got that? We didn’t ignore it. It “was lost,” like a kid’s homework or Stephen Harper’s capacity to feel. This sounds better than resorting to the more honest “What’s-his-nose Liberal guy gave a speech or whatever but we were following Harper and Layton to see if they’d hold hands down at the soda shoppe.”

Election speculation stories are often paired with another journalistic mainstay in Ottawa—the anonymous source. You know you’re dealing with rock-solid information when a person who refuses to reveal his identity forecasts the timing of an event over which he holds no influence.

Still, anonymity remains commonplace. When reporting on the Liberal party, for instance, reporters will often quote a “long-time Liberal” or a “senior Liberal” or even a “long-time senior Liberal”—though it gets confusing because does that mean the person is a) someone who’s been a senior Liberal for a long time, b) a long-time Liberal who’s now senior, or c) a person who’s been very old for a very long time. The least they can do is be more specific about the people they’re being completely vague about.

Don’t get me wrong: there are times when reporters need to shield their sources, such as when they’re breaking big news like Watergate or the Caramilk secret (get on it, Woodward). Less clear is why political reporters so readily grant anonymity, empowering unidentified people to take partisan shots, badmouth their own leaders or praise the magazine column they’re in as “rather astute and hilarious,” unidentified people said.

There’s always someone who disagrees with a political decision—it kind of matters who that someone is, doesn’t it? Is it Bob Rae who’s criticizing Michael Ignatieff? Or is it some old-timer in Saskatoon who thinks the party’s gone straight to hell ever since Louis St. Laurent passed? I suspect some people are quoted “off the record” so frequently, even their kids greet them at the door with a hearty, “Yay, former Conservative strategist is home!”

And then, of course, there are the political observers and experts—given space for their views but also routinely cloaked from our gaze. How exactly do you get certified as a political expert? Do you need to enter a political simulator and verbally emasculate Jack Layton? Or do you merely need to pick up the phone and have 10 minutes to spare when the lady from the newspaper calls?

Some aspiring journalists are surely thinking to themselves, “This sounds easy. Anyone can do this kind of ‘reporting.’ ” But there’s more to it. Those seeking to produce the perfect Parliament Hill story need to do more than speculate wildly and conceal their sources—they also need to work in the results of a new poll, whether it’s relevant or not. (Here in the capital, we’re sometimes forced to go whole hours without a new poll to tell us exactly how public opinion hasn’t changed in the last five years.)

To complete the Ottawa circle of life, this story will then be discussed on TV by a panel made up of party strategists or MPs, who will condescendingly dismiss its findings. They’ll do it even though they were likely the sources quoted anonymously in the first place.


 

It must be true—some unnamed guy said so

  1. HAHAHAH ! too funny and too true –

  2. HAHAHAH ! too funny and too true –

  3. Seems ot me that too many journalists and pundits are suffering from premature "ejac-election"…

  4. Seems ot me that too many journalists and pundits are suffering from premature "ejac-election"…

  5. What a refreshing article….. 2 thumbs up. It is hard to beleive anything the media says these days

  6. "Have you heard the exciting news? According to the Parliament Hill press gallery, there's going to be a federal election this spring. Or this fall. Or next spring or later next spring or next fall or eventually. And you can take that prediction to the bank, Canada! (You may want to postdate it.)"

    Best… Intro… Ever.

  7. "Have you heard the exciting news? According to the Parliament Hill press gallery, there's going to be a federal election this spring. Or this fall. Or next spring or later next spring or next fall or eventually. And you can take that prediction to the bank, Canada! (You may want to postdate it.)"

    Best… Intro… Ever.

  8. I do think that sometimes, political pundits are actually starting rumors for job security. The writer has to staff 2 or maybe 3 articles a week about politics. If nothing is happening at all, I mean no action whatsoever, why would the boss of the pundit pay for something that is 3 words long: ''All is quiet''.

    I can think of at least half a dozen cases in the last 12 months when I read something that could not have come from anywhere else than the pundit's behind. Sometime amusing, sometime just plain scary and sometime a reason for a shift in the polls for a short period of time.

  9. I do think that sometimes, political pundits are actually starting rumors for job security. The writer has to staff 2 or maybe 3 articles a week about politics. If nothing is happening at all, I mean no action whatsoever, why would the boss of the pundit pay for something that is 3 words long: ''All is quiet''.

    I can think of at least half a dozen cases in the last 12 months when I read something that could not have come from anywhere else than the pundit's behind. Sometime amusing, sometime just plain scary and sometime a reason for a shift in the polls for a short period of time.

  10. I refer readers to the New York Times anonmyous sources policy:
    http://www.nytco.com/company/business_units/sourc

    Here are the most usful tidbits:

    We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available.

    Confidential sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us — or they must be the authorized representatives of an authority, known to us, who has such knowledge.

  11. I refer readers to the New York Times anonmyous sources policy:
    http://www.nytco.com/company/business_units/sourc

    Here are the most usful tidbits:

    We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available.

    Confidential sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us — or they must be the authorized representatives of an authority, known to us, who has such knowledge.

    • cont'd

      We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

      We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack. If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.

      Anonymity should not be invoked for a trivial comment, or to make an unremarkable comment appear portentous.

      • Are you sure is the New York Times? Because it sounds to me, like Saturday Night Live! : )

  12. cont'd

    We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

    We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack. If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.

    Anonymity should not be invoked for a trivial comment, or to make an unremarkable comment appear portentous.

  13. Are you sure is the New York Times? Because it sounds to me, like Saturday Night Live! : )

  14. No need for an election

  15. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/libe

    "This will not be Canada's first election on social media."

    Brilliant. How do these journalistic gurus imply that an election will happen tomorrow without actually saying that? HOW DO THEY DO IT?!?!

  16. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/libe

    "This will not be Canada's first election on social media."

    Brilliant. How do these journalistic gurus imply that an election will happen tomorrow without actually saying that? HOW DO THEY DO IT?!?!

  17. No need for an election

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