New York Times Pumps up Steroid Coverage with Hidden Sources
Steroids are back in the news with the arrest of a Canadian doctor charged with providing performance-enhancing drugs to top athletes. It’s a major issue in the sports world, raising the question whether some of today’s most-well-known sports stars violated rules to boost their performance. At the same time, the ethics of how The New York Times handled the investigation also raises serious questions.
At the Times, steroids scandals are big news. Since December 2009, the Times has run at least 42 stories and briefs linking the latest scandal to at least 12 major athletes including golfer Tiger Woods, and baseball players Alex Rodriguez, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. Every one of them was analyzed for his connection to Dr. Anthony Galea, who the Times described as “a sports medicine specialist who has treated hundreds of professional athletes across many sports.”
But it’s not the names that were included in the stories that matter. It’s the names that weren’t. In 40 percent of the stories (17 out of 42), reporters refused to disclose who was leaking them information. The very first story included this nebulous sentence: “He is suspected of providing athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, according to several people who have been briefed on the investigation.”
Story after story includes some version of that dance around naming sources:
“Those with knowledge of the interactions with Galea spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing the medical treatment of players.”
“Those who spoke about the matter said they did not want to be identified because they were discussing an active investigation.”
Other stories merely cited “people who have been briefed on the investigation.”
No such luck for Woods, Rodriguez and the rest. Though none of them has been charged with anything, Rodriguez was mentioned in at least 25 stories, Woods and Reyes in 17 each.
None of the stories questioned the necessity of so many different law enforcement or government agencies concerning themselves with what is, at best, a minor crime. But according to the Times, seven different organizations from the FBI to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were involved in the investigation. Homeland Security was even part of it.
Nor did any of the stories question why the leaks were occurring and which agencies or officials were boosting their agendas or careers on the backs of big name stars. This, despite the fact that the Times knows anonymous sources are a big problem. In “A Dialogue With Our Publics,” a 2005 report to the executive editor from the Times’ “Credibility Group,” the paper acknowledged the problem. “Dan Okrent, the public editor, told the committee that when readers complain to him, anonymous sourcing is the No.1 killer of our credibility.”
The report outlined “editing procedures to keep unidentified attribution to a minimum.” But that was in 2005. By late 2009, the paper had apparently forgotten that strategy in reporting the Galea case. Michael Schmidt, one of the 13 Times staffers involved in the investigation, was either the lone byline or one of the bylines in every single story where sources went unnamed.
For Schmidt, this isn’t anything new. It’s how he’s handled or been handled in other, similar investigations. In an Aug. 4, 2010, story on a separate sports doping inquiry, headlined “Cyclists Said to Back Claims That Armstrong Doped,” again government sources aren’t named. They appeared merely as “two people with knowledge of the investigation” who “spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to jeopardize their access to sensitive information.”
A story on allegations against Rodriguez from May 2009 again cited anonymous sources or “people within baseball who were briefed on the matter.”
News outlets naturally want reporters to get scoops. But anonymous leaks that appear to benefit only one side of a prosecution and enable authorities to intimidate others raise huge ethical questions.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics has several entries that address some aspect of the issue. “Journalists should:
“Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.”
“Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”
“Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.”
“Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.”
But none of that voluntary code seems to matter to the Times. Nor does the paper want to discuss its own ethical concerns. When asked about the issue, the Times ombudsman did not respond to comment.
Without Times input, all that is left are a few questions.
1) Why is the paper committing so many resources to this story?
It’s the kind of commitment in an era of declining news staffs that any news department would envy. In all, at least 13 separate staffers reported on the stories – more people than the sports stars implicated in the stories themselves (12). Apparently, the paper loves the “inside baseball” drama of the intersection of sports and drugs. But 13 staffers reporting something that most Americans consider yawn-worthy? One possibility is the typical newspaper quest for award-winning stories. Even that seems out of proportion given all of the major issues the Times chooses not to investigate with that level of energy.
2) Who is leaking to the Times and why?
It took decades for the Watergate leaker to be revealed and many people really wanted to know. It’s unlikely this name or names will reach the public. So then, it’s the SPJ line about “always question sources’ motives.” What are the possible motives about leaking this story endlessly other than putting pressure on big name athletes and trying to get them to help the prosecution?
That narrows down most of the likely leaks to a person or persons who feel this case will boost a career because of its high profile nature. If that’s the case, the Times is not only raising ethical issues, it might be raising legal ones as well if it is serving as an agent of the prosecution for leaks of questionable legality. It’s obvious the Times won’t write that story and bite the hands that are feeding it information on the case.
3) Now that the case is moving forward, will the Times finally apply any of its own standards about leaks and sources to Schmidt?
Given that anonymous sources crop up throughout his stories, it’s unlikely the paper will restrain him. So athletes are left with the prospect of an extended trial where one side is allowed free access to the Times to drag their names through the mud.