The ubiquity of unnamed sources in Asian media

By Yo Tong on June 6, 2011
Most of the media use anonymous sources but some use more than others. (Image: Marco Belucci, CC)

In today's world of journalism, citing nameless sources is a practice that has become all too common.

It provides a facile explanation to often complex matters and virtually eliminates the element of blame and reprehension. This tactic has become widespread, if not ubiquitous in Hong Kong and Japanese journalism, as big companies and government officials are cajoled by it more and more in order to seek subterfuge from urgent and critical matters.

An anonymous source serves a dual function: first, it protects the insider by concealment. Second, it offers unique and coveted information to a news-hungry public, who has the right to be informed of happenings of local, national and global concern. In some cases, anonymity is used to protect the informant from generating repercussions. For example, in a recent report by the New York Times regarding the peril of temporary workers in earthquake-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant:

Some workers are hired from construction sites, and some are local farmers looking for extra income. Yet others are hired by local gangsters, according to a number of workers who did not want to give their names.[...] 

“Your first priority is to avoid pan-ku (puncture),” said one current worker at the Fukushima Daini plant [...] “Once you reach the limit, there is no more work,” said the worker, who did not want to give his name for fear of being fired by his employer.

However, anonymous sources can be a double-edged sword; professional journalists should be aware of the cost of using such devices as their creditability is at stake.

According to a readers' survey conducted by the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) in the United States, 44% of interviewees said anonymity makes them less likely to believe what they read.

Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor of the New York Times, pointed out that readers dislike anonymous sources because they cannot independently judge the sources’ credibility.

Al Neuharth banned unnamed sources when he founded USA Today in 1982. He is critical of the whole situation regarding anonymity and argued that

As competition for readers and viewers and listeners and prizes from peers has become greater, more and more publishers and editors and broadcast managers have relaxed their rules. More and more reporters have taken advantage of that environment. It's so simple. Most anonymous sources often tell more than they know. Reporters who are allowed to use such sources sometimes write more than they hear. Editors too often let them get away with it. Result: Fiction gets mixed with fact.

To a lesser extent, some western media have their own guidelines or practices regarding anonymity in media. Associated Press allows the use of unnamed sources in situations when:

  • The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report
  • The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source
  • The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

The New York Times “resist granting sources anonymity except as a last resort to obtain information that [they] believe to be newsworthy and reliable.” The daily newspaper fortified its policy in 2004:

The policy requires that at least one editor know the identity of every source. Anonymous sources cannot be used when on-the-record sources are readily available. They must have direct knowledge of the information they are imparting; they cannot use the cloak of anonymity for personal or partisan attack; they cannot be used for trivial comment or to make an unremarkable comment seem more important than it is.

Reuters has its detailed and comprehensive guidelines regarding the use of unnamed sources. It articulates:

  • Reuters will use unnamed sources where necessary when they provide information of market or public interest that is not available on the record. We alone are responsible for the accuracy of such information.
  • When talking to sources, always make sure the ground rules are clear. Take notes and record interviews.
  • Cross-check information wherever possible. Two or more sources are better than one. In assessing information from unnamed sources, weigh the source’s track record, position and motive. Use your common sense. If it sounds wrong, check further.
  • Talk to sources on all sides of a deal, dispute, negotiation or conflict.
  • Be honest in sourcing and in obtaining information. Give as much context and detail as you can about sources, whether named or anonymous, to authenticate information they provide. Be explicit about what you don’t know.
  • Reuters will publish news from a single, anonymous source in exceptional cases, when it is credible information from a trusted source with direct knowledge of the situation. Single-source stories are subject to a special authorization procedure.

These guidelines and considerations are hardly noticeable, if not entirely absent, in Hong Kong and Japanese newspapers. The abuse of unnamed sources in the news is the consequence of their conformity and self censorship, which eventually sets to undermine their very creditability.

According to data compiled by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), in the first quarter of 2011, 2,478 articles in Hong Kong’s Chinese-language newspaper and 351 articles in the English-language newspaper quoted anonymous sources.

HKJA said that this phenomenon underlines a bizarre trend wherein government officials, instead of holding formal press conferences, convey crucial policy messages through off-the-record briefings and informal, sometimes impromptu, background briefings.

Ma Ngok, the associate professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes that Hong Kong’s Government attempts to strengthen its control of local media by these off-the-record briefings. He also asserted that “the government evades accountability in essence and [this] reflects the authorities’ lack of confidence.” As officials do not explain the rationale behind their policies, the general public can merely infer facts from biased and fragmentary information obtained from the aforementioned briefings.

One example of such control and manipulation can be seen in the public opinion poll concerning this year’s controversial budget proposals. The budget in the forthcoming fiscal year contains a HK$43.6 billion relief package, including a one-off, HK$6,000 injection to every Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF - a compulsory pension fund for the retirement of residents in Hong Kong) account. The injection proposal ignited strong public rebuke as the compulsory, privately run pension scheme has long been plagued by poor performance and soaring administrative costs. Several opposition members of the Legislative Council also criticized the budget focused on short-term remedy with no long-term plan.

Financial Secretary John Tsang at first refused to give in, but subsequently flipped and scrapped the unpopular MPF injection proposal and replaced it with a direct cash handout. On March 22nd, several Chinese newspapers quoted “informed sources of the Government” to elaborate the findings obtained from a public opinion poll conducted by the Central Policy Unit (CPU), the main advisory body of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, and quoted the source said that those opposed the budget proposal are same as “stepping on dog shit” and bringing troubles to the opponents themselves.

Robert Chung, the director of the Public Opinion Program of the University of Hong Kong (HKUPOP) said that the result of CPU’s poll, wherein 75% of respondents expressed a favorable stance towards the budget proposal, is quite different from the Budget follow-up poll conducted by HKUPOP between 10 and 16 March this year, wherein 45% of 1,009 interviewees expressed disapproval towards the budget.

Mr. Chung pointed out that Hong Kong’s government referred to “informed sources” to selectively release news to particular media. He underlined that this practice started to become more frequent during the leadership of Tung Chee-wah, Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, following the handover of the British colony to China in 1997.

After the Central Policy Unit changed its Chief Advisor, Hong Kong’s government began selecting a increasing number of unnamed sources from within its staff without disclosing the rationale behind these selections. Mr. Chung described such a practice as “secret and hidden”, akin to “a villain’s conduct.”

In his memoir, Shum Kam-chi – former Editor-in-Chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal – was more worried about the self-disciplining of Hong Kong media to please Beijing authorities than of any mainland-led censorship following 1997. In other words, he fretted at the thought that Hong Kong media may abandon the principle of “without fear or favor” in exchange for self-censorship and profit.

In Japanese media, the practice of referring to unnamed sources is as widespread as it is in Hong Kong. The very existence of the Japanese word for anonymous “related/authorized person” (ie. kankeisha) seems to be so natural and, by extension, so legitimate that nobody bothers questioning it.

(From top to bottom: a report by Kyodo News dated 24 May, 2011 [article 1]; a report by Asahi News dated 23 March, 2009 [article 2]; a report by Yomiuri News dated 13 April, 2011 [article 3])

The three examples above are extracted from Japanese major news sources. Kyodo is one of the two major Japanese news agencies. Asahi is hailed as “the New York Times of Japan” and Yomiuri is the most widespread newspaper in Japan and boasts the largest worldwide circulation. Asahi and Yomiuri are two of the “Big Five” in the Japanese newspaper industry.

From top to bottom are: a report by Kyodo News, dated May 24th, 2011, regarding unauthorized logging in Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, a UNESCO world heritage [article 1]; a report by Asahi News, dated March 23rd, 2009, about the graft scandal of Ozawa Ichiro, then President of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) [article 2]; and finally, a report by Yomiuri News, dated April 13th, 2011, regarding the pending appointment of Hosono Goshi, a DPJ lawmaker, as Minister of State for Nuclear Crisis [article 3].

In article 1, about half the content is based on the verities told by an anonymous “related person in the investigation” (orange), which is understood to be “an insider of Wagayama Prefectural Police.”

In article 2, nearly the whole story is based on the leak from Tokyo Prosecutor’s Special Investigation Unit (light blue). Article 3 is largely based on hearsay: among the six citations in the articles, the only two quotes that bear a name are the comments of Tanigaki Sadakazu, Leader of the Liberal Democrats (LDP) regarding the amendment of the Cabinet Law (green), and by Okada Katsuya, the Secretary General of DPJ (pink). The latter states:

During the Joint Conference for the Earthquake Disaster, a seemingly displeased Secretary General Okada said “I don’t know (about the "brute move" by Prime Minister Naoto Kan)”.

The remaining four are anonymous: one is allegedly by a DPJ official, another from a so-called “official of DPJ’s Policy Bureau,” one from an “official of the New Komeitō.” The last is a vague remark “within DPJ”.

The abuse of unnamed sources in Hong Kong media is a result of its gradual succumbing to the economic and political dominance of its government and the pro-Beijing camp. Similarly, the widespread practice in Japan is a result of self-censorship by the kisha - Japanese for “reporter” - who are influenced by political institutions and economic powerhouses.

In Japan, politics and media are tightly knit together. Despite its postwar constitution, which stated, “freedom of [...] press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated” (Article 21), media in Japan is far from independent. Contrary, Japanese journalists have for long participated in propaganda campaigns and even political negotiation.

One of the most remarkable examples of such a relationship is Watanabe Tsuneo, the editor-in-chief and chairman of Yomiuri News. Since he joined the daily paper as a political beat reporter, Watanabe has taken part in political horse-trading during the LDP’s years of leadership. Even after the LDP’s primacy in 1993, the influence of Watanabe did not recede. In 2007, Ozawa Ichiro confirmed that Watanabe attempted to negotiate a deal between Ozawa and Fukuda Yasuo, then Japanese Prime Minister, in forming a “grand coalition” so as to end the congressional stalemate.

In 1974, then Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei launched Operation TOKYO, a large scale propaganda campaign aimed as crushing five major reformist local government leaders in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Yokohama and Okinawa. The now-abolished Ministry of Home Affairs has mobilized mass media, most notably Sankei as well as Asahi, to intensively bombard the reformists for their lack of fiscal discipline. Eventually the anti-reformists sentiment was widespread among voters and led to the subsequent defeat of the reformist candidate in the Tokyo mayoral election of 1979.

One of the factors which makes such manipulation possible is the information cartel in the Kisha Club system.

A Kisha Club is a news-gathering association of reporters from news organizations, whose reporting centers on a press room set up by sources varied from the Prime Minister’s Office to government ministries, local authorities, police, and corporate bodies.

Institutions with a Kisha Club limit their press conferences to the journalists of that club. Membership to the club is restrictive, thus disallowing domestic magazines, foreign media and freelance reporters to partake in the press conferences.

Mori Yohei, associate professor of Seijo University, pointed out that whereas the first prototype of the Kisha Club can be traced back to 1899, when the Kasumi Club and Kuroshiokai were established in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Navy Ministry respectively, the interdependent relationship of complicity between media and the establishment was consolidated after Nagata Club was founded in Kantei (the Prime Minister’s Office) in 1914. Under the wartime censorship regime, the Kisha Club became a system to administer reporters.

Laurie A. Freeman, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes that these press-based information cartels limit competition between reporters from different media outlets and gives bureaucrats the ability to control and define their own agendas. Ellis Krauss, Professor of Japanese Politics and Policy-making at the University of California, San Diego, argued in Media & Politics in Japan that,

The Japanese reporters’ clubs [...] induce and encourage dependence of reporters on their sources and a tendency to report the news as their sources see it. “Beat” journalists who cover the same organization or person over time become specialists on what they cover and also tend to see the world as their sources do. They often can become prisoners of official handouts and leaked information provided by their sources. Attached on a long-term basis to an organization, journalists know that if they alienate their sources they cannot do their job, and this dependence sometimes makes these journalists more transmitters of official information than independent and objective observers.

Uesugi Takashi, a former New York Times reporter turned media critic, described Kisha Clubs as a “convoy system” and pointed out that “no one (reporter) should stand out. If you are the only one who gets the scoop, you are given the cold shoulder. If you are the only one who doesn't write it, then you are condemned by your company.”

Laurie A. Freeman detailed in her paper how the Asahi journalists were “punished” by fellow reporters when Asahi broke the tacit rule regarding anonymity and revealed the identity of the unnamed source in a report.

Although Japan and Hong Kong are ranked amongst the top in East Asia in the 2010 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders (11th and 34th respectively), given the extensive presence of such sublime media manipulation, there is a long way to go before they establish independence and truly become the Fourth Estate.