Anonymous Sources: From Baseball and Steroids to Trenton and a Basketball Tournament

One of the many questions remaining unresolved after this week’s Congressional hearing on steroid use is how much credibility to give to anonymous sources. Indeed when the Mitchell Report was issued in December, naming 89 present and former Major League Baseball players as steroid users, one of first points raised in defense of those athletes was the source of the information linking them to performance-enhancing drugs. The source was testimony from a former personal trainer and a former clubhouse attendant. Both men previously had been implicated in illegal steroid activity and were given incentives by law enforcement authorities for their cooperation with Mitchell.

Locally, New Jersey also had a sports story this week that demonstrated the volatility of relying on anonymous sources. On Sunday, the Trenton Times ran a column indicating that the Prime Time Shootout, am annual basketball tournament featuring some of the nation’s top high school teams, might not return to Trenton. The column described a number of reasons why tournament officials were unhappy with the current arrangement, ranging from sponsorship conflicts to the food for volunteers to the manner in which Mercer County officials treat the Prime Time staff.

The column, however, had not one on-the-record source. The “problems” identified in the article were attributed to “sources,” “one official,” “one of the PT (Prime Time) officials, who did not want to be quoted,” “a spokesman from one of the sponsors who also did not want his name in the newspaper, and “one of the officials of the Prime Time who has been with the event since it began.”

The newspaper also reported that County Executive Brian Hughes did not return a phone message it left for him. This sounds peculiar since Hughes generally is accessible to the press. He has communication staffers whom the paper could have contacted and the Trenton Times has reporters who cover the county and should be able to get a question answered on a Sunday.

But rather than wait for the official word on the status of the tournament, the paper published a column with all of its information attributed to anonymous sources.

That was unfortunate because the story was quite different when the Times finally did speak with people who had no problem seeing their names published alongside their quotes.

“I think our situation with the Prime Time Shootout is fine,” Hughes said in an article that appeared the day after the column. “I plan to be back here,” added Jeff Hewitson, the tournament’s director.

Anonymous sources have an important role in journalism and value for our democracy. But they must be used appropriately and with great discretion — and that did not happen here.

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