Consuming Journalism: Unnamed sources aren't bad, using them poorly is

After the recent G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, President Trump took to Twitter to make a reference to a ceasefire of some kind in Syria that he brokered in talks with President Putin. On 10 July 2017, Buzzfeed posted an article by Nancy Youssef claiming that “Pentagon officials on Monday said they knew nothing about how the ceasefire was being monitored or enforced.” That statement may be true and accurate, but it’s difficult for a reader to make an informed decision because of the vague and possibly inconsistent sourcing.

Here are the references in the article to the sources commenting on the ceasefire agreement and its implementation:

  • Pentagon officials
  • three Defense Department officials
  • U.S. military officials
  • one military official
  • officials
  • U.S. military officials
  • one Pentagon official
  • A State Department senior official

The titles and labels are used to instill a sense of authenticity and authoritativeness. However, when one considers how large and complex the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, the US military, and the State Department are, the seemingly authoritative labels become a lot more vague. It doesn’t help that the author is possibly inconsistent in the application of those labels.

It is impossible to determine from the article how many sources were used. The Pentagon is often associated with the U.S. military, but it is, in a sense, a huge office building that has personnel from nearly every branch of the U.S. Government. Are the “Pentagon officials” Department of Defense civilians, uniformed U.S. military personnel, or officials from another agency assigned to the Pentagon? Are they assigned to offices or commands that would be aware of policies affecting Syrian operations? If so, is it common or uncommon to have an information gap or lag following announcements or policies that come out of international summits? One of the worst offenders in the article is the use of “senior” – what is the criteria for determining that someone is a senior official at the State Department? How does the use of that qualifier help a reader make a more educated decision about what he or she has read?