Update: After publication of this piece, I interviewed Cory Shouten, a senior editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, who worked on the story. Shouten had not read this post at the time of the interview, but spoke about the topic.
He said the CJR doesn’t often use anonymous sources but said that there are “extraordinary circumstances where I think there’s some justification for it.” He pointed out that there are several sources on record at the front of the piece.
He said it was a tricky story in terms of editing, writing and reporting.
“Getting the number of people that we got on the record in this story, getting to that point was difficult,” he said.
He also said that Schwartz “took steps to verify” the information from anonymous sources.
Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article titled “Vice shows how not to treat freelancers.” The piece, by Yardena Schwartz, was a scathing look at the alleged practices of Vice in regards to freelance journalists, which, if the article is to be believed, are at best disappointing and at worst horrific. She interviews journalists, many of whom corroborated each other’s stories of bad company practices and poor treatment. The author herself explains that she’s been a victim of Vice.
The story is a glimpse into the already-difficult lives of freelancers and a somewhat sickening look at an influential media power’s disregard for journalist’s needs and livelihoods. The story it’s really telling is one of Vice letting our struggling industry down. It should be a huge one-two punch directed at Vice and a very powerful piece for readers.
I say should because when I read this article a few weeks ago, I was shocked by the treatment it described, but that’s not what stuck with me after I closed out of the website. What I couldn’t shake was a concern in regards to the journalism ethics practices that showed up in the story.
The piece used anonymous sources, which are always tricky. It makes it harder to trust the story, and it gives the journalist a lot of power, maybe more power than they should have. However, much good reporting has been done historically with anonymous sources, and sometimes that’s the only way to get the truth to the public, which is ultimately the most important goal of journalism.
But Schwartz didn’t use one anonymous source.
She used somewhere between seven and nine.
It’s a little hard to exactly pin down because some journalists in the story are spoken of specifically as individual sources while others are referred as a number in a group consensus and it’s hard to be sure of anything because of vagueness, but by my estimate, out of the 18 (19 if you count Schwartz) people used as examples for or against Vice in this story, seven of them spoke off-the-record, plus one who refused to speak with Schwartz period but was still used as an nameless example case and two whose opinions are mentioned as part of a group but are not named for unspecified reasons, possibly irrelevance. Of the sources whose names appear in print, three of them are Vice employees or journalists that the author found through Vice that support the company.
So in a story incorporating 17 people that’s attempting to bring to light a problem with Vice’s practices, there are a total of five named critics.
In the article, Schwartz describes how when she sent a note out to journalists explaining the bad experience she had as a freelancer with Vice, her inbox was “flooded with emails from other journalists who had suffered similar misfortunes with Vice.”
Where are they? She describes a particular group of 25 people that she was in contact with, and explains that only three had positive things to say. They wouldn’t go on record. And apparently the 23 that didn’t have anything nice to say weren’t much help in that regard either!
Despite the email responses, there is no flood of journalists on-record in this story. There are not any pictures of these email responses. There is just the description of a flood that we never see being corroborated in any checkable way, described by an openly-biased writer who is part of the Vice/freelance controversy she’s writing about. If this flood really happened, and yet so few people, as we see from the ridiculous amount of anonymous sources, were willing to talk about it, that’s potentially a story. There’s apparently a sweeping discomfort across the industry about speaking out against this publication. That’s weird. That needs to be addressed. Instead, this story treats it as normal that criticism of one website has a culture of confidentiality on level with the Pentagon papers! The story affords only a minimal amount of time for explanation of the silent parties’ motives.
Yes, the article does have a few very solid, on-record interviews that point at a potential problem, but it doesn’t have enough to indicate the trend it’s claiming as opposed to just demonstrating isolated failures on the part of Vice or biased accounts on the part of the journalists. It tries to hit its claim of a systematic problem home in the extensive use of unnamed sources that are used to add bulk to the list of complaints, but what that creates is a trend piece based on only a few traceable sources and a whole bunch of elusive maybes that we’re supposed to eat up as a trend.
This all deals with a number of ethical principles. The big one is transparency. There is little to no transparency in this story. It is almost not worth talking about transparency in this story, because when there’s seven to nine unnamed sources, there is no question of transparency. Arguments can be made for anonymous sources, but this many? That is at odds with the ethical principle of transparency, in my opinion.
This also gets into the idea of accountability. How can an audience hold a journalist and a publication accountable if everything is untraceable and none of the facts can be investigated or even put into a frame of non-hypothetical reference?
In terms of the ethical principle of minimizing harm, the ethics of this story do get more complicated. It is probably safe to assume that if seven people wouldn’t talk about Vice, in a positive or negative way, there is a real professional danger for the sources here. In order to minimize harm, perhaps it was necessary for Schwartz to support her fellow journalists and protect them with anonymity. Still, this is highly critical information that could impact Vice’s ability to get freelance journalists to write for them and, more generally, readers to share and support them. Harm is being done to Vice in this story, and it doesn’t necessarily have the strong sources needed to make that justifiable.
The final issue I want to raise is the issue of independence. Schwartz is not a neutral party here. She’s not only biased, but she’s part of the story as a journalist wronged by Vice. Can you be independent and also be a part of the story and biased? She says at one point that after she interacted with Vice, she spent a “month feeling cheated and sorry” before trying to warn journalists off of the site. Some might argue that her transparency on her involvement and bias made this okay, or that this piece merely has an editorial-slant, but this is a facts-based journalism article that has an unapologetic bias and is written by an involved party. There’s no way to get around that.