Fried chicken, beer and anonymous sources

There have been many, many words typed over the last week over Bob Hohler's story in the Boston Globe about the Red Sox's epic collapse at the end of the baseball season. And so I thought, here's an overcrowded marketplace of ideas ... me, too! First of all, some disclosure: A former colleague of mine at the Binghamton newspaper and a friend of mine, Scott Lauber, covers the Red Sox for the Boston Herald, the Globe's competition.

On to the story. First of all, there are two bombshell accusations (for lack of a better word) in the story. The first is the fried chicken/beer/video game habits of starters Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey. The second is manager Terry Francona's alleged marital and prescription drug problems. As many people have said, if the Red Sox had played better in one more game in September, the pitchers' behavior may have been an example of a loose clubhouse rather than players not dedicated to the cause.

To me, it was interesting that the story led with the fried chicken/beer/video games rather than the alleged drug problem of the manager. If you compare the two, there's no doubt which is more sensationalistic, more headline provoking. My theory on this (and it's my own conjecture) is that it's because Francona spoke to the reporter and denied the allegations. There is no denial of the fried chicken/beer/video game portion of the story, so that's the lede.

One more point on the players' behavior: Here's the actual paragraph from the story. It's the second graf of the piece:

Instead, Boston’s three elite starters went soft, their pitching as anemic as their work ethic. The indifference of Beckett, Lester, and Lackey in a time of crisis can be seen in what team sources say became their habit of drinking beer, eating fast-food fried chicken, and playing video games in the clubhouse during games while their teammates tried to salvage a once-promising season.

Before we get to anything else, what makes this story so memorable are those details. It's not just that the Red Sox pitchers are accused of being selfish and lazy. They're allegedly drinking beer, eating friend chicken (note that it's fast-food fried chicken) and playing video games during games. That's why I tell students that details are so important to writing and journalism. Those three details capture the essence of the story better than anything else.

Now, on to the anonymous sources. Here's the line from the story itself:

“This article is based on a series of interviews the Globe conducted with individuals familiar with the Sox operation at all levels. Most requested anonymity out of concern for their jobs or potential damage to their relationships in the organization. Others refused to comment or did not respond to interview requests.”

Over at Grantland, Chris Jones and Jonah Keri had a fantastic discussion about this story and the use of anonymous sources. From Keri:

This story is hardly alone in using anonymous sources to gather key material. You see it all the time, especially in political reporting, but sometimes in sports journalism, too. By offering a shield of anonymity, the reporter gives his source a chance to say anything he wants about anyone he wants without any accountability or concern for consequences. We can’t verify the motivation of the sources, because we don’t know who the sources are. And when we’re groping in the dark that way, it calls the veracity of the anonymously sourced article into question. ... Does this story qualify as important enough to the public interest that granting anonymity is justified, the way it would be if, say, corruption in the CIA were uncovered? One could argue that few matters are of greater public interest than baseball in Boston. I don’t share that view."

I disagree with Keri on the importance point. To agree with that is to say that nothing in sports rises to the necessary level of importance is a slippery slope. If you accept that, why have sports journalism in the first place? Why not just run the final scores? Why not have reporters act as cheerleaders instead of journalists (there are some who would argue that's always the case, but that's another study for another day). But the questions he raises about the sources are very good ones.

The general consensus is that this was Boston management leaking details which, as Keri and Jones point out, is horrible. Anonymous sources shouldn't be used to protect those in power. It should be used to protect whistleblowers, to give aid to those who are trying to get the truth out.

The thing is, we live in a media savvy age. It's telling that very quickly, people were publicly discussing who leaked the story, who the sources were. With this in mind, reporters need to be very careful in how they use anonymous sources. Here are the Society for Professional Journalists' ethical guidelines for anonymous sources:

— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.

These are good guidelines to keep in mind. Sometimes, anonymous sources are a necessary evil in journalism. But it's important to remember that using them will raise questions about your story, ones that you need to be willing and able to answer.

What's everyone else think of this story?