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Jun 20 / King Kaufman

Friday reads: Anonymous sources, shoe-leather reporting … Oxford comma

I’m thinking of making this a regular, or semi-regular, Friday feature: Gathering up some interesting pieces that I haven’t otherwise commented on in the B/R Blog and offering them up as weekend reading for you.

Politico’s reporting disaster by Dana Milbank, Washington Post

Former PaidContent editor Staci D. Kramer tweeted that Milbank’s column “should be [required] j school reading: not for the masterful takedown, but for the reporting lesson.”

Backstory: Milbank wrote a column about a Heritage Foundation gathering on Benghazi that, he wrote, “deteriorated into the ugly taunting of a woman in the room who wore an Islamic head covering.” Politico blogger Dylan Byers published a post headlined “Dana Milbank’s Heritage disaster” in which he wrote that, based on a video he’d seen, “Milbank grossly misrepresented the nature of that exchange.”

Milbank’s reply, the piece linked above, accuses Byers of “armchair journalism,” drawing conclusions from nine minutes of video from a 65-minute event, which, Milbank writes, doesn’t capture the nastiness toward the Islamic woman that Milbank heard, and recorded, while sitting in the audience:

It’s possible, of course, that Byers could have sat at my side for the entire event and still thought I misjudged it; such interpretations are subjective. But had he witnessed all these remarks, and heard the hisses in the audience and observed the moderator’s sneers, he might have understood better the exchange with Ahmed that followed. That’s why there is no substitute for shoe-leather reporting.

Even if it’s Milbank who’s mischaracterizing the exchange, he still offers an important lesson in jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information.

The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours by Jack Shafer, Reuters

AnonyWatch: When Unnamed Sources Are Flat Wrong by Margaret Sullivan, public editor, New York Times

Shafer gives the New York Times hell for two recent stories that relied on anonymous sources and were flat wrong. Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, largely agrees, writing that while she believes anonymous sources are sometimes necessary, “In my view, they are allowed too often and for reasons that don’t clear the bar of acceptability, which should be set very high.”

More from the Times, which has been getting a lot of attention in this space lately:

What Makes a Great Editor, Part 1 by Insider Staff, New York Times

What Makes a Great Editor, Part 2 by Insider Staff, New York Times

Various Times people answer this question. You might run into the paywall trying to read these.

Elitist, Superfluous, Or Popular? We Polled Americans on the Oxford Comma by Walt Hickey, FiveThirtyEight

Don’t get me started on this. Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised by the suggestion that those who favor the Oxford, or serial, comma tend to think their grammar is excellent. As grammar expert Merrill Perlman puts it in the piece, “Many people who think they are good at grammar are good at following what they think are the rules.”