Journalistic standards weren’t upheld in Ames Tribune story


Kelby Wingert/Iowa State Daily

ISU coach Fred Hoiberg reacts to a call from a referee during the game against Texas in the Big 12 Championship quarterfinal game on March 12 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. After trailing the entire game, the Cyclones came back to win 69-67.

Max Dible

Anonymity in journalism is a tricky thing.

As a journalist operating in almost any field within a market society, you will inevitably run up against entrenched institutions that attempt to obstruct your path to truth, especially when the revelation of truth isn’t aligned with their interests.

Infiltrating an institution’s ranks is often the only way to unearth anything valuable, because most value resides in places they’d rather keep hidden from prying eyes.

But granting universal anonymity to sources is a dangerous game. It subtracts accountability from the equation, and suddenly as the reporter, you’ve promised your way into a patsy — a mouthpiece for some nameless voice to shout loudly and publicly anything it desires, be that the truth, lies or exaggerations.

And so, like most relevant debates, arguments must be focused to a specific instance and contextualized through circumstance. The instance for today is Travis Hines and his article in the Ames Tribune.

In that piece, Hines asserts that the ISU athletic department and ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard “nickel and dimed” the ISU basketball team and its coach Fred Hoiberg, insinuating that the rocky relationship between the two entities and their figureheads may have contributed substantially to Hoiberg’s departure for the Bulls in June.

This information, according to Hines, was mined from “near double-digit sources.” Not one of those sources was named, except for former assistant coach Doc Sadler, who was paraphrased once as saying he couldn’t recall an argument with Pollard and Assistant Athletic Director David Harris depicted by one of Hines’ anonymous sources.

Let me rephrase that for effect. The only human source named in the story wasn’t even quoted, and what he was paraphrased saying was a refutation of something an anonymous source asserted.

Why Hines didn’t expressly list the number of anonymous sources he spoke to is a mystery to me. I’m not sure what he thought an absence of numerical specificity was protecting. My larger issue with his reporting, however, is that he never indicated in any sense that the anonymous sources he spoke to were qualified to offer commentary where they did.

Maybe sources were worried about their current jobs or future job prospects, and that prompted a request for anonymity. But then, Hines should have at least indicated how these sources were qualified to say what they did. 

This is a source quoted in Hines’ article speaking in general about Pollard’s running of the team and his relationship with Hoiberg.

“If Jamie would have handled things differently, I’m not so sure Fred would have left.”

How do we know this isn’t just random speculation from say a team manager, some student who doesn’t have much more of a relationship with Hoiberg than the reporters he talked to three times a week — like Hines and myself — or the janitor who maintains the Sukup Basketball Complex?

“(Pollard) didn’t want to give it to him,” a source said in the Ames Tribune story about the $600,000 raise Hoiberg received after 2014.

Is this someone in the administration or the athletic department? It would be easy to cite the source as a member of either group without offering up enough information to compromise the source’s identity. 

Without that specification, why should I believe this anonymous person is capable of deciphering the inter-workings of Pollard’s mind, or had any knowledge of the negotiations, as the story claims?

“It was an incredibly cheap move,” another source said about Iowa State asking the players to kill a few hours in Maui before a flight rather than pay a full night’s rate for more than 20 rooms so guys could lounge in a hotel for an extra couple of hours.

Cheap and frugal are different things. Does this person have knowledge of the team’s budget or budgetary concerns in any regard, or is this just someone who was traveling with the team and would have preferred a nap in a hotel room over a few hours touring a tropical island?

Finally, we have an evaluation of how to do the job of athletic director.

“Jamie did his job when he hired Fred but didn’t understand his job then became to keep him.”

How about this source? Is he or she at least a member of the athletic department? Do they at least have a sense of what the job is beyond pure speculation?

I can talk about why President Obama is good or bad at his job, but anyone who would quote me anonymously on it in a serious news story as an authority really ought to consider pursuing a different career path.

This is my point. There is no real information being dispersed or real edification happening in these “insights” from Hines story.

After reading these quotes, I gained exactly zero substantial knowledge or understanding about the inter-workings of either organization or any of the relationships that connect them.

Everything in Hines’ piece is exclusively opinion, speculation — which reads as though soured by bitterness.

I’m fine with anonymous sourcing if it’s done the right way. I’ve even done it myself once. But Hines did this the wrong way.

The difference is in my story, I quoted multiple other sources by name. I noted in what department the ISU employee worked to justify that person’s qualifications to say what was said.

And finally, I only did it because the employee was breaking protocol by discussing internal policy in a manner more candid than is usually deemed acceptable when speaking with a reporter.

My source gave real, valuable, edifying information that added to the story’s factual basis. The anonymity wasn’t serving as a platform for baseless accusation rooted in biased, unqualified opinion as it may well have functioned in Hines’ story — adding a cheap and tawdry Maury-Povich element clamored for so loudly in modern popular culture.

And to be clear, I’m not even asserting that what Hines’ sources said were necessarily untrue, or that the sources themselves were necessarily unqualified — but I have to assume they were because Hines refused to qualify them. He didn’t even tell his readers how many of them there were.

I conducted an interview with Pollard on Wednesday that can be accessed here in a story co-written by myself and Ryan Young. In it, Pollard expressly states that Hoiberg refuted nearly everything Hines’ sources provided him, which amounts to nearly all of the information in the story.

Pollard said unequivocally that Hoiberg was willing to be quoted in the Tribune’s story, while in the story itself, Hines said Hoiberg never made himself available for comment.

This adds another layer of doubt to the accuracy of Hines’ piece and the soundness of his reporting.

Pollard has been the ISU athletic director for a decade. He knows that anything he says on the day Hines runs that story is going to be dissected. Pollard is far too smart and media savvy to come out and assert that Hoiberg said something to Pollard on the phone only the day before if Hoiberg didn’t actually say it.

And as big of a name as Pollard has in Ames, it doesn’t come close to the name Hoiberg. Outside of Ames, Hoiberg’s profile dwarfs Pollard’s even more. There is no way Hoiberg would allow Pollard to trumpet that the ex-coach asked to be included as a source in Hines’ story if that wasn’t the case.

The facts are, Hoiberg told Hines the information he got from his anonymous sources wasn’t true. Hoiberg told Hines he could use him as a named source in the story, which would have been the ethical thing to do even if only to balance out the assertions of the anonymous.

Yet Hines ran the story absent Hoiberg’s voice, absent qualifying any of his anonymous sources and then said Hoiberg couldn’t be reached for comment.

That type of journalism is irresponsible, misleading and damaging. But man, it sure received a boatload of attention.