Name names

My journalism career began in the 1960s when I wrote a high school news column at John F. Ross Collegiate for the Guelph Mercury. I’d sit down at my Smith-Corona typewriter every Sunday night at 9 p.m. (my deadline was Monday morning) and write until I fell asleep.

I was paid nine cents a column inch. On a good week, I could earn $4, enough to take my then girlfriend, now wife, to the movies and then for cherry Cokes and chips with gravy.

The memories came flooding back as I read Denise Rudnicki’s excellent study on the uses of anonymous sources in the Globe and Mail. The first time I ever cited an anonymous source was when I quoted an unnamed friend in one of my columns as saying: “Don’t let schoolwork interfere with your extracurricular activities.”

The morning after publication I was summoned to the office of the principal, Lorne Fox. Fox reamed me out in front of a squirming pair of other students, the president of the student council and the president of the athletic council. Fox said the entire school had been held up to ridicule, teachers’ work had been debased and I was nothing but a ne’er-do-well.

Unlike some situations where finding the name of the anonymous source becomes the focus of everyone’s fury, Fox didn’t care. What mattered to him was the poor impression readers would have of the school. As far as he was concerned, everybody should be punished. The school prom, to be held within days, would be canceled.

In the end, Fox relented. The dance was not cancelled. But he assigned a teacher to read my columns before submission. There was no need. I had learned my lesson. In writing thousands of stories and a dozen books since, I don’t think I’ve cited an anonymous source more than a handful of times.

Nor should anyone else. If someone won’t talk on the record, their comments don’t deserve to be heard. Newspapers as grand as the New York Times have found greasy ways around such a simple rule by allowing writers to quote someone with the slimmest of explanations such as “who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak on behalf of the candidate.”

Such subterfuge should not be allowed. A reader’s trust is too precious to lose.

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