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November 4, 2014

Prospectus Feature

The #Sources Season

by Matthew Trueblood

Matthew Trueblood writes about baseball at Armside Run. You can reach him by email or on Twitter at @Arm_Side_Run.

There’s a great essay by Bart Giamatti, written just after the end of the 1977 season, called “The Green Fields of the Mind.” It’s both laconic and flowing, hopeful and somber. It perfectly captures a certain moment in the life cycle of a baseball fan, and it’s full of the warmth, pensiveness, and realism fans need in order to get through the winter in good spirits.

It belongs to another generation.

We no longer bemoan the absence of baseball all winter, the way we might have in 1977. Free agency was a new and ill-established phenomenon then; it’s now a winter-long event unto itself. The winter trade market is livelier, although fewer total trades are made because of all those free agents. Baseball no longer abandons us; it just turns uglier. The rhythm of the offseason is much more jagged than that of the season. The stories we read are less and less focused on the game itself as the winter drags on. It all becomes about who’s going where, and when, and for whom.

There’s a whole new set of jargon one must learn in order to follow the Hot Stove maneuvering. It lacks any of the charm of “painting the black” or “worm burner,” though. There’s no imagery in it, no blood flowing to it. During the offseason, reading about baseball is all about trying to parse the intentionally opaque language reporters use to describe their (invariably) anonymous sources on the latest rumor.

Anonymous. That’s the key word. It isn’t necessarily an evil word, for a reporter, but it sure is a vexing one. In all arenas of American journalism, anonymous sourcing is “much more universal than it was in the Sixties,” according to Dan Okrent, but the Society of Professional Journalists still takes caution and reticence as its official approach to the use of unnamed sources. The director of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting went a step further in a recent lecture, openly decrying the practice, and in particular, its proliferation in places where it feels unneeded.

There’s really no question that anonymity has its place in news reporting, but does it belong in baseball? Does the sort of information we get from reporters using unnamed sources add to our enjoyment of this time of year, or detract from it? That’s the question we’re here to answer.

To be clear, it’s not really possible to replace anonymous sources. Baseball is a big business, filled with competitive people obsessed not only with achieving profit, but with beating the other guys. Information is currency, and these people don’t give anything away. Reporters who ask for a given source’s opinion or insight on almost any situation are lucky to get a straight answer at all. Getting the same while being able to attach it to the source’s name is usually out of the question.

That has all kinds of implications, because to these reporters, the information at stake is vital. There’s huge demand for rumors pieces. Fans gobble up free-agent speculation, be it about which players Team X might chase or what team Player Y might choose. Leaving those stories unwritten, speculative and specious though they may be, would seriously dent a major media outlet’s bottom line. If the only relevant questions about anonymous sources were whether using those sources was necessary to building a story, and whether that story was valuable, there wouldn’t be much of a dilemma here. (That’s true, even though the value of the story is higher for the publisher than for the audience, which should matter.)

There are other questions to answer, though, like: Does the use of anonymous sources damage the credibility of a report? Well, it depends on the nature of the report.

A statement of fact passed to a reporter can come from virtually any source. A fact is a fact, and once the reporter decides to trust the source enough to run with it, the reader is left only to decide whether the reporter has the judgment to trust the right people, or the wherewithal to verify a source’s information before reporting it.

In baseball reporting, though, anonymous sources are often giving their opinion, prediction or speculation on a topic. In that case, where there is less accountability for a “wrong” answer, the reader has to trust not only the reporter, including their judgment that the source’s opinion or speculation is both newsworthy and accurate, but also the source. We have no way of establishing that trust without knowing how close the source is to the situation, or what expertise qualifies them to give their two cents’ worth of input. That’s why the AP bans using anonymous sources to report anything other than facts.

Sometimes, sources make perfectly reasonable proclamations, even predictions, and those predictions are borne out in time. It’s still possible for a report to have been spurious when that happens.

Consider, as a hypothetical, this article on the Cubs’ pursuit of Joe Maddon last week. The reporter, Patrick Mooney, treats the Cubs’ hiring Maddon as an inevitability (his word), citing “multiple industry sources.” Multiple industry sources. That could be Cubs GM Jed Hoyer; Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero; and Rays traveling secretary Chris Westmoreland. It could also be Tigers GM Dave Dombrowsky; Javier Baez’s agent, Nick Chanock; and Indians area scout Carlos Muniz. Those groups have equal general credibility on baseball, and one could see either group speculating on the phone with some reporter about whether Joe Maddon is headed to the Cubs. One group, though, could have told Mooney almost for certain that the deal was going down. The other group would have about the same amount of authority to speculate that I have—none.

If someone in the former group did speak to Mooney, it would be his duty to fight hard to get one of them on the record, or to get sufficient assurances from them to report the hiring as a fact without direct attribution, the way Jon Heyman did Thursday afternoon. At that point, readers would be able to treat the report as factual, and evaluate its trustworthiness on the basis of Mooney’s established credibility. They could also have called Mooney to account if the report had ended up being untrue.

If no one from that first group spoke to him, Mooney ought not to have cited sources at all, because he wasn’t in position to speculate based on the whispers he was getting. It’s okay for a reporter to offer his or her own judgment of a situation, including making a prediction about how it will unfold, but they should speculate with their own voices, not those of anyone who can’t be held accountable if they’re wrong.

Here’s another case study, also from the Maddon saga: Check out this Ken Rosenthal article on the tricky situation that led to the firing of Rick Renteria and the hiring of Maddon. Within the piece, Rosenthal makes three distinct references to people within the game being livid with Maddon, or the Cubs, or both, specifically over the ousting of Renteria. The closest he comes to actually identifying the people whose collective opinion of Maddon he deems newsworthy? “Others in baseball.”

This would offend the crafters of NPR’s first guideline on anonymity: “Don’t let sources offer anonymous opinions of others.” It’s bad enough when a source readers cannot identify talks trash about a player’s skills. When those sources begin to cast aspersions on character, a reporter has to give them an ultimatum: Give me a quote on the record, or keep your thoughts to yourself. Don’t think for a moment that Maddon’s case is an isolated one. Too many baseball people have been called names or had their personal characteristics attacked by faceless haters.

There’s one last area in which anonymous sources are prevalent, and it will hit a little closer to home than the last two: player evaluations.

This is where it’s okay to argue that the risk of being wrong is low—the stakes are only as high as the importance you place on baseball games themselves—and that, therefore, the reward of just hearing the information outweighs it. On the other hand, there’s never more motivation for a source to lie than when they’re talking about how they value or rank players. Most sources in the know (and who have any claim to anonymity) work for a team. They might manipulate or mislead the reporter in order to get the kind of information (or even the specific tidbit) that best serves their employer out there. It’s perfectly possible that a reporter is being fed a line, and it’s then up to the reporter to identify the source closely enough that the bias may be visible. That’s not always possible. Nor is it likely that most readers will be able to discern good sources from bad, once they’re passed info from those sources by a third party.

A separate issue is credibility itself. Let me tell you something about myself: I have #sources. Specifically, there are three people who either work for or have worked for MLB teams with whom I regularly correspond on Twitter. On a few occasions, these people have told me things that I could have told other people, through my Twitter feed, on comment threads, anywhere. I’ve never done so, because these sources are not, by my reckoning, credible. I know that they’re connected and that they have a modicum of baseball knowledge, but I don’t trust them to have things right or to evaluate players well. This is hard for many people to believe, but it’s absolutely true: There are people working for baseball teams who know less about the game than you do. Some scouts are baseball gods. Others might be the equivalent of B-list celebrities starting their own religions. When a reporter gives an anonymous scout’s take, the reader can only guess at which guy is talking.

That’s why the value added by prospect-oriented reporting has long been the baseball knowledge of reporters themselves, who might not be scouts, officially, but have all the scouting acumen of the average scout, and avail themselves of other scouts’ opinions according to their appraisal of those scouts’ abilities. The more this happens, the better prospect coverage gets. The more the reporter counts only on scouts to be both honest and right, the less value the reader gets from the resulting content.

This is the truth to which it all boils down: There’s really no substitute for expert knowledge in baseball reporting. Jim Bowden, as a former general manager, tends to do better at forecasting moves than most of the seemingly hooked-in rumor mongers out there. (We could debate the merit of chasing rumors in the first place, but the sheer popularity of the practice says the question is settled.) Baseball fans are better served by people who have a deep understanding of the game, and who use that insight to deliver enlightened analysis and thoughtful commentary, than by anyone speculating based on gossip. If we pushed harder against the use of anonymous sources, we might find that it would change the incentives to which the media respond, and improve the quality of baseball coverage we get from all corners.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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