Never lie to me.
That's the one rule that journalists have for their sources.
Journalists depend on sources for news. It's one of the cornerstones of the idea of social construction of news that I study in the day job. Reporters can't be everywhere and see everything they write about, so they depend on sources to tell them what's happening. That access to sources is a key professional value, one reporters value above almost everything else.
As a journalist, you know that not every source is going to be 100 percent truthful with you all the time. They'll obfuscate. They'll spin. They'll talk around the question. They'll no comment you. A coach will downplay an injury to a key player to throw off the opposition. You expect that, and you work with it and around it the best you can. But the underlying premise of the journalist-source relationship is that rule. Never lie to me.
Did the NFL lie to reporters about the Ray Rice case?
Deadspin has done spectacular work with this part of the story call day. As Barry Petchesky point outed, the elite sporting press — Peter King, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, et al — all reported that NFL officials had seen the video from inside the elevator (as well as the initial video from outside the elevator). That fact, along with the fact that we hadn't seen it, leant itself to the tacit party line of the NFL and the elite sporting press, which seemed to be "We didn't see what happened in the elevator, we don't know for sure, so we can't pass full judgment against Rice." Of course, this supposes that there is something that Janay Rice could have done in the elevator that would have justified her being knocked unconscious and dragged out of the elevator.
But today, the NFL said it had never seen the video before today. Which means that either the NFL did see this video months ago and is only responding now because of the publicity, or the NFL didn't see this video and therefore conducted an incomplete investigation. Either way, the NFL was lax in its effort.
As was the elite sporting press that covers the NFL. Peter King described his own reporting:
Earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video that was released by TMZ on Monday morning of Rice slugging his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator. The source said league officials had to have seen it. This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty. No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me, and so I was surprised to see the claim today that league officials have not seen the tape.
To be blunt: Peter King would fail any journalism class I teach with reporting like that. Any of my students at SUNY Oswego would be able to tell you that the one thing you don't do as a journalist is assume. Once you do that, you make an ass out of you and me. It's such a cliche, we've turned it into a dumb joke. But it's still true. And King still did it. (Or, as Deadspin wrote, it could be that King is just covering for his source. Which would be so much worse.)
King's behavior speaks to so many of the ills of the elite sporting press. It shows the danger of using anonymous sources - notice that King does not give us any information about the source except that he's a league source and has been "impeccable." Traditional journalist ethics dictate that you're supposed to give as much information about the source's identity as possible, but never mind that. He didn't call the league for comment, which he called "a lapse," and which I'd call "a gigantic hole in your story, since you made it sound like you had talked to the league, what with your 'league source' and all."
Most significantly, King didn't call out the source. Even though the source at best provided misleading information, or at worst lied to King. None of the members of the elite sport press called out the league sources they willfully quoted over the summer — even though those sources violated the only rule that governed their relationship with journalists.
Never lie to me.