Unsourced stories on Jobs’ health: do you approve?

People are wondering why the Wall Street Journal is able to run a completely unsourced story about Steve Jobs’ liver transplant. It’s because the WSJ is confident in its source but doesn’t want to indicate anything about the nature of that source. As ballsy as it seems, the reason big newspapers do this now and again is because the risk to their own credibility is minimized by adopting strict policies toward anonymous sources.

Gruber analyses the WSJ story at length today, and comes to a convincing conclusion:

That a member of Apple’s board of directors leaked the information to the Journal without Jobs’s permission or knowledge, or perhaps, if the matter of public disclosure had been posed to and dismissed by Jobs at a board meeting, expressly against Jobs’s wishes. The scenario I am imagining here is that Jobs does not wish to reveal anything regarding his medical situation, but that a member (or contingent) of Apple’s board believes it is in the company’s interest to release the basic gist of the story, regardless of Jobs’s wishes.

The risk to such a source would be immense: not just personal and immediate, but potentially career-destroying, with lawsuits at hand. We know it’s true not just because the WSJ is credible, but because we know that WSJ doesn’t habitually launder nonsense into news: it will have made clear to its source that deception will result in exposure.

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A good reporter protects whistleblowers and leakers to the point of unreason. But liars will always be burned by credible media, and the WSJ’s sources know it. You only have to look at the thoroughness of Gruber’s deconstruction — already homing in on a handful of suspects — to see why it’s keeping its mouth shut about its source.

Either that, or HIPAA laws were broken somewhere to get this story, and sourcing it could imply that a crime occurred.

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9 Responses to Unsourced stories on Jobs’ health: do you approve?

  1. MB says:

    But you’re being prescriptive in your explanation, whereas in the post it’s struck me as attempting to be descriptive. Which, again, I don’t think it is at all.

    Small point here, but still important to journalism as a whole.

    (And yes, while the WSJ op-ed pages are a fever-swamp of ridiculousness, the reporting has been (and hopefully will continue to be) top flight.)

  2. Rob Beschizza says:

    I think business reporting at the big dailies attains and deserves that line as a description. Or maybe I just assume? :)

  3. MB says:

    You provide a clear and convincing explanation of why the WSJ did what it did, but this sentence:

    the reason big newspapers do this now and again is because the risk to their own credibility is minimized by adopting strict policies toward anonymous sources.

    almost made me spit my drink out. Sure, that’s what a j-school textbook might say, but anyone who’s been paying attention to the media in, oh, forever, would know what a load of horse)@# that is.

  4. Rob Beschizza says:

    But doesn’t the coffee-sputteringness arise when reporters conveniently forget to make anonymity contingent on truthfulness? Some newspapers are better at this than others — the WSJ’s editorials may be full of rhetorical legerdemain, but its business reporting is very tight.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Alternative Theory: It *is* someone on Apple’s board, someone in debt who needs to cover his short sales, and thinks he’s either hidden his ownership well enough or that his (frat brother, cousin, whatever) buddy reporter at the WSJ will continue to protect him.

  6. strider_mt2k says:

    Does that count for blogs too?

  7. beneditor says:

    Still – on the plus side, this story means Fake Steve Jobs is back. It’s like 2007 all over again!

  8. Rob Beschizza says:

    Yes, blogs should burn sources that lie, too. Perhaps bloggers (or their readers) might be more likely to believe that it’s improper to burn sources under any circumstances.

    A blogger with a good track record of iterative reporting can enjoy getting into pickles that print reporters must avoid. But at the point you realize you’ve been screwed by a source, you still have the same dilemma.

  9. dr.hypercube says:

    Rob – not to belabor the point, but I cannot think of an example of a traditional media outlet burning an anonymous source for lying to them. By burning, I mean explicitly saying, “our reporting on x was wrong because Joe Blow, the anonymous source cited in our story, BSed us.”

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