Anonymity and using it to protect the wrong people
This may have been mentioned once or twice on the ol’ Twitter dot com machine last night, but Missouri defensive end Michael Sam let the world know he was gay. He’s pretty good at the whole football thing (SEC Defensive Player of the Year) and was expected to be drafted in the third or fourth round by an NFL team, thus giving the sport its first openly gay player.
There was a lot of praise for Sam’s bravery, but there were also some people (dudes) who felt this was a bad decision, either because they don’t want some dude’s sexuality (aka penis) all up in their face or because it was a bad career move for Sam.
Football writer Peter King had a story in the wake of the Sam news that was filled with quotes that were entirely anonymous. Personally, I don’t like the use of anonymous quotes in certain situations, especially when the anonymity is a way for the subject to hide when offering inflammatory, damaging quotes.
Here’s the quote that really stands out from one NFL GM, which is, of course, decidedly negative toward Sam and his future.
" “We talked about it this week,” the GM said. “First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
I asked this general manager: “Do you think he’ll be drafted?”
“No,” he said.”
There’s a whole lot wrong with that line of thinking. For one, if everyone thought like that guy, we’ll never get to that magical 10-year mark when it’ll be fine for there to be an openly gay football player in a locker room because no one would draft openly gay players.
Flawed logic aside, my main problem is this GM, a man who is in charge of hiring and firing of people to work at his place of business, essentially said he would never employ someone because of their sexuality.
If you’re a journalist, you want to offer anonymity in select situations. The big one is when the subject of your interview is revealing sensitive information about someone and could face unfair repercussions from it. Think of someone like a whistleblower who doesn’t want to be subject to attacks or threats from a powerful corporation or government office. As the journalist, if you believe your source’s information is accurate and credible but believe he or she could come under attack, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave that person’s name out of your report.
There is a host of harmless situations where anonymous quotes are fine. To me, this Peter King story isn’t one of them.
First of all, King makes an egregious mistake by offering anonymity right off the bat. “I spoke to all anonymously,” King wrote, “because with such a touchy subject, I assumed all would either no-comment me (and one other GM did) or say something so sanitized it wouldn’t really be the truth. I don’t like to do anonymous sources to write an entire story, but I felt in this case it would give the best information possible.”
King started from a bad place by offering anonymity before getting a no comment, one that may not have come in the first place. Never assume. Getting a “no comment,” then offering anonymity is better, but not acceptable in this case. Also, the notion that this is a “touchy subject” makes you think someone other than King should be writing it. If every journalist interviewed people about a “touchy subject” and offered anonymity, we’d never know where quotes come from for any story of a so-called sensitive nature.
But King did what he did and here we are.
The overriding problem with this quote is, to me, it’s criminal in nature. While the unnamed GM doesn’t use the exact words, “I would never draft a gay player,” that’s what he’s telling King in so many words.
"It’s going to affect most locker rooms."
"Ten years from now, fine."
As a journalist, as a human being, if you are interviewing someone in such a position of power as an NFL general manager and they tell you they wouldn’t draft someone because they are gay, isn’t it your duty to reveal that person’s name in the best interest of society and make him answer for it? Congress has yet to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which would make it illegal for companies to discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation, but really, how sad of a nation do we have to be in order to need the government to tell us that’s wrong?
Maybe King isn’t under any legal obligation to reveal the name of the clearly bigoted GM, but what about an ethical one?
I understand that King offered immediate anonymity to his subject, which was, again, a mistake, but how far would the subject have to go before King decided hiding that person’s name was a detriment to society? What if he had gone on to say he has cut gay players it the past when he discovered their sexuality? Then should he have revealed that GM? Where’s the line when speaking to someone anonymously?
Sports reporters aren’t civil rights reporters and few are equipped to handle a story like Sam’s.
Personally, if I’m speaking to a GM and they reveal to me they’d never draft or sign an openly gay player, that GM’s name needs to come out, even if I foolishly immediately offered anonymity before asking my question. If the fallout from doing so meant losing my job or the trust of other sources, so be it. If my employer or contacts aren’t on board with my “I’m not letting bigots lob anonymous hateful nonsense under my byline” policy, I won’t be sad to say farewell to those people.
You never want to become someone that has reputation for being untrustworthy in situations like this, but I’d rather be known as the guy who outed the bigoted GM than the one who protected him.