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Differentiating between levels of sourcing

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has a post up on his blog that deals with the different types of conversations a writer or reporter can have with sources.  As Ambinder explains:

In the reporter/source Talmud, there are ostensibly four categories of information: On the Record, On Background, On Deep Background, Off the Record.

Ambinder goes into some detail about all of these areas, along with a potential fifth category, but in a nutshell, he breaks it down thusly:

On the Record -- You can use it and specifically identify the person who said it.  "Jon Daniels says the team's internal defensive metrics show that Derek Jeter is the best defensive shortstop in baseball." *

*  It shouldn't be necessary to point this out, but to be clear -- this is a hypothetical example.  Jon Daniels hasn't, to my knowledge, said this, and I have no idea what the team's defensive metrics say about shortstops.

On Background -- You can use it, but have to be non-specific about the identity of the source.  "A Rangers official says the team's internal defensive metrics show that Derek Jeter is the best defensive shortstop in baseball."

On Deep Background -- You can use it, but can't link it to the source in any way, and won't use it unless you are willing to put your reputation on the line based on what the source says.  "The Rangers' internal defensive metrics show that Derek Jeter is the best defensive shortstop in baseball."

Off the Record -- You can't use it.

Ambinder talks about the confusion that sets in when "On Deep Background" and "Off the Record" get conflated, and the reality, as Ambinder notes, is that any information given to a reporter can influence what he writes.  In the above example, the "Off the Record" info could result in the writer saying, "While stathead orthodoxy suggests that Derek Jeter is a bad defensive shortstop, some teams could feel otherwise, based on their own statistical analysis."

In any case, this got me thinking about the occasional discussions that crop up here, particularly when controversial stories get out, about whether or not baseball writers should use anonymous sources. 

A few folks take the rather extreme position that no writer, baseball or otherwise, should use anonymous sources...if a source isn't willing to put his name out there in connection with the information, it shouldn't be written.

Now, obvious problem #1 is that, if that were to truly be adopted, we'd have no trade rumors ever reported.  We'd have a lot less reporting on evaluation of players.  There would be much, much less information out there for sports fans.

Would that be a good thing, really?  If we eliminated everything but what Ambinder classifies as "On the Record," then not only are we losing the "an A.L. front office exec says the Blue Jays want the cloning rights to Albert Pujols in exchange for Roy Halladay" stuff, but also more nuanced stories.  When Evan Grant or T.R. Sullivan writes, "The Rangers are interested in Jermaine Dye," there is no specific source that is named or alluded to...but at the end of the day, Grant or Sullivan is relying on anonymous sources just as much as the Pujols clone story guy.  And that eliminates much of the value that the beat reporters can offer the fan.

Still, it seems like that these "softer" unsourced reports that clearly rely on sources cause less controversy, and I doubt that even the most dogmatic of the "don't use anonymous sources" folks really want Jeff Wilson to avoid saying in a column that, for example, the Rangers are still looking for catching help unless he states that he got that information directly from Daniels or Thad Levine or Nolan Ryan or whomever.  It is when the information is "sourced" in an indirect way that folks get bent out of shape.

But why?  What harm is there in, for example, a writer quoting "an N.L. West scout" as saying that Martin Perez has the best fastball in the Texas League?  And as a corollary, why can't people understand why people quoted anonymously in these sorts of articles can't go on the record?  Scouts are going to get fired if they go on the record with their evaluations, front office types can be fined for tampering and probably don't want their individual opinions to be public knowledge, and expecting A.J. Preller or whomever to be willing to have his name used in connection with some tidbit like that is unrealistic.

So what is really acceptable on these sorts of sourcing issues?  To me, it is just a matter of knowing who the writer in question is, and judging the reliability on that...because at the end of the day, a writer who runs with bad info is ultimately going to lose credibility.