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Anonymous Sources, Hong Kong Style Critical Issues in Journalism and Global Communication March 2004, D. Weisenhaus Case study #1 Budget stories, 2000 Case: When Donald Tsang announced 2000 budget, no tax increase or new taxes.

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Anonymous sources hong kong style l.jpg

Anonymous Sources, Hong Kong Style

Critical Issues in Journalism and Global Communication

March 2004, D. Weisenhaus


Case study 1 budget stories 2000 l.jpg

Case study #1Budget stories, 2000

Case: When Donald Tsang announced 2000 budget, no tax increase or new taxes.

But from Oct. 1999-March 2000, all 15 dailies carried at least 52 stories with anonymous sources on proposals to introduce a sales tax or a land departure tax. 13 were lead stories.


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Examples of anonymous sources used in the budget stories:

Most common attribution: “government sources” (half the stories)

Second most common: “sources”

Others included:

“an authoritative source,”

“people in the know,”

“a source close to the government”

“a person in the political circle”

“people who have met the Financial Secretary”


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Other attributions:

While government was major source, others included academics, politicians, media…

“An academic who met Donald Tsang…” (HK Economic Times)

“a legislator from the Democratic camp” (Apple Daily)

“a source told TVB News” (Standard)

“a source quoted by the electronic media” (Tin Tin Daily News)


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Sometimes, no sourcing at all...

9 stories: “It is understood…”

2 stories : “Our reporter understands...”

2 stories: “It is generally believed…”


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Possibility of sales tax…Jan.11-13, 2000:

“Senior finance officials” told SCMP (Jan. 11) that a sales tax is set to be announced

“A government source” told Tin Tin Daily News (Jan. 12) that the chances are “slim”

Oriental DN (Jan. 12) “understood” Financial Secretary would announce sales tax

“People in the know” told Sing Tao Daily (Jan. 13) that sales tax would not be introduced for 1 or 2 years.


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Anonymous sources sometimes told truth….

All 10 reports from March 5 until March 8: said government might not impose tax

What happened?

(Hint: Donald Tsang made up mind mid-February)


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Case study #2SCMP, Apple, Ming Pao, 2003

3 newspapers, March 16-22, 2003, week of National People’s Congress.

Apple: 326 stories

  • 60% (197) used at least one unnamed source

  • 25% of those only used “source” w/o other description

    SCMP: 600 stories

  • 10% (60) unnamed sources. Half of those used some description (e.g., spokesman for particular government dept. or company)

  • Most unnamed sources were not primary source of information (less than 1%)

    Ming Pao: 283 stories

  • 8% (24) used unnamed sources

    Common theme?


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How used?

Sources are government and often for benign routine stories (e.g., HK policy on GM products).

Apple: 1 in 5 of the unnamed sources dealt with government; SCMP, 1 in 8.

Total breakdown, SCMP: politics 48%, business/economic 30%, crime/police 8%

Rare for whistleblower stories in HK


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The Hong Kong policies

Ming Pao: No general guidelines but some “unwritten rules”: reporters are required to verify information by anonymous source by checking with another source. An exception is when initial source was someone in position of authority (e.g., senior government official). Decision mostly made by reporters.

SCMP: “To avoid misleading the public, journalists should strive not to use information provided by anonymous sources. In cases in which anonymity is necessary, extraordinary care must be exercised to ascertain the veracity of information so provided.”

Apple Daily: Editor-in-chief: No policy. They trust the judgment and professionalism of all reporters. For usual stories, he wouldn’t even ask for identity of sources. For unusual stories (Gary Cheng, Antony Leung), he would ask.


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More HK policies…

HK Joint Code of Ethics (2000): To avoid misleading the public, journalists should strive not to use the information provided by anonymous sources…Journalists should handle with great caution information provided by people who are not willing to publicise their identity.

TVB: “TVB is pledged to disclose the source of all information when at all possible…must make every reasonable effort to get it on record. If not possible, consider seeking info elsewhere. If not possible, should request an on-the-record reason for concealing source’s identity and should include reason with story. No pseudonyms are to be used, unless clearly stated and reasons given…”


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How to compare?

US newspapers, 30% of stories (journalism.org)

Since Jayson Blair and other scandals, 17 news organizations tightened rules on anonymous sources

New York Times (1,800-word policy): “The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy…Whenever anonymity is granted, it should be the subject of energetic negotiation to arrive at phrasing that will tell the reader as much as possible about the placement and motivation of the source in particular, whether the source has firsthand knowledge of the facts. “Trail markers should be as detailed as possible. ‘U.S. diplomat' is better than ‘Western diplomat,' which is better than ‘diplomat.' Still better is ‘a U.S. diplomat who took part in the meeting.' And ‘a lawyer who has read the brief' or ‘an executive close to the XYZ Company' is far better than ‘a person familiar with the case,' a phrase so vague that it could even mean the reporter.”


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More comparisons

Washington Post (3,500-word policy!)

“Editors have an obligation to know the identity of unnamed sources used in a story …

“We prefer at least two sources for factual information in Post stories that depends on confidential informants, and those sources should be independent of each other. We prefer sources with first-hand or direct knowledge of the information. A relevant document can sometimes serve as a second source. There are situations in which we will publish information from a single source, but we should only do so after deliberations involving the executive editor, the managing editor or the appropriate AME. The judgment to use a single source depends on the source's reliability and the basis for the source's information.”

UK Code of Practice: No guidelines except: “Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.


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