As noted yesterday, the NYT appeared to have exposed its own source in a story yesterday concerning security arrangements for the Olympics. The troublesome passage, as it originally ran in yesterday’s online edition, reads:
The owner of the Xinjiang Kashgar Restaurant near the main Olympic venue said he shut down Tuesday after repeated visits from officials who cited health concerns. He said several other Muslim restaurants nearby had received similar visits. The owner, a Uighur, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that he would be further harassed by the authorities.
However, at some point in the (Chinese) night, the NYT changed the last sentence to read:
The owner, a Uighur, asked not to be identified by name for fear that he would be further harassed by the authorities.
I have no idea if this is a more accurate statement of the conditions under which the unfortunate Uigher man spoke to the NYT. But I do know when a reporter/news source is covering its ass, and this – dear readers – is a textbook example. With this caveat now inserted into the paper, the NYT and its reporters can claim that they fulfilled all of their obligations to their source; that is to say, they have no liabilities if he suffers consequences for having spoken to the NYT. Good for them, I guess.
But, in a very real sense, this new sentence makes the NYT and its reporters even more ethically and professionally suspect. Clearly, if this gentleman asked that his name not be used to protect himself from government harassment, his intention was to remain anonymous. But the NYT’s reporters, for reasons known only to them, were either deaf to his stated intention, or decided that – in spite of the very real danger that this source was placing himself into by talking to them – they’d done enough.
Put differently, does anyone – including the NYT reporters – really believe that if you asked their source whether the NYT held up their end of the sourcing agreement, he would say ‘yes?’
In the course of my own journalism, which often involves sensitive sources, I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve been told – by regular Chinese – that they won’t talk to foreign reporters because they are afraid of being “tricked.” Special thanks to the New York Times for upholding the stereotype.