Beware of unnamed sources bearing 'insider dope'

It began with a blog post.

In February 2016, Star Tribune [Minneapolis] digital sports editor Michael Rand penned this about then-Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio potentially being traded. As Rand pointed out, a plethora of news sources also reported this potential trade, citing this New York Daily News article as the source.

One of the problems with this, Rand said, was that there was no actual person cited in this New York Daily News article as the source of this information. "A feeling" was.

The article said, "Incumbent Ricky Rubio is readily available, and the feeling is that the Spanish guard could be moved prior to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline."

A feeling? Whose feeling? From where did this information come, and why would so many outlets feverishly pick up and spread information credited to a "feeling"?

Rubio was neither traded that week nor that year. He was traded to the Utah Jazz in June 2017.

One of the hallmarks of journalism, according to the Society of Professional Journalists, is to identify sources. This allows the audience to judge for itself sources’ reliability and motives.

Multiple scholars have studied the implications of using anonymous sources in news coverage. To summarize, it rarely increases content quality. Audiences are more likely to perceive news as being credible when sources are named (e.g., "[Enter person's name] said," or "according to [enter public record here]") than they are when a source is not named (e.g., "according to a source close to the situation...."). With anonymous sources comes a lack of transparency that can backfire. Officials seeking anonymity may be floating trial balloons, or determining how the public would react to a certain proposal that may — or may not — even be under consideration. Granting anonymity to some people, while making others speak on the record, creates impediments to fairness and impartiality. It also creates a bottleneck of public viewpoints since the same anonymous sources tend to leak information numerous times over several years.

Out of all of the anonymous source studies I read, though, I found few that examined the use of anonymous sources in American sports media. They pretty much stuck to hard news, especially war coverage. My colleague, Guy Harrison, and I wanted to find the most objective way possible to measure information accuracy and sources in a sports media context. One way to do this was in NBA trade coverage. We decided to find stories about trades, record the people discussed as potential trades, then cross-reference our list with the NBA transaction log to see if the people talked about in trade stories did, in fact, go on to be traded.

We knew it wasn't a perfect tool. We can't presume that information accuracy and whether a trade took place correlate. For example, there may have been serious discussions within organizations about trading certain people, but, for any number of reasons, that trade did not happen. However, we could see if information given from unnamed sources, or "feelings," like in the above example, were more likely to predict trades, than information given from named sources, like athletes and coaches. In other words, was this really valuable "inside dope" that journalists should covet and continue to cultivate?

We examined NBA trade stories published between Oct. 1, 2015, through Feb. 17, 2016 (the trade deadline was Feb. 18, 2016) in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN. There were 97 stories, for a total of 146 mentioned transactions.

Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets was mentioned as a potential trade the most (15 times), followed by Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks (13), and Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers (11). None of these men were actually traded before the trade deadline. Howard went on to be traded in July 2016, Anthony in September 2017, and Griffin in January 2018.

Overall, 82 percent of trade speculation in our sample was not credited to a source. Of the 95 unsourced speculated trades, 14 actually took place. Of the 20 sourced speculations, four went on to take place. Though information from named sources did fare slightly better, it wasn't enough for there to be a statistically significant difference between the two groups. However, this did vary significantly between publications. You can read about that and more in the full study, “Insider Dope” and NBA Trade Coverage: A Case Study on Unnamed Sourcing in Sports Journalism, that just came out in International Journal of Sport Communication. Our primary takeaway for sports journalists is to beware of unnamed sources bearing "insider dope." That information shouldn't be presumed to be more dependable than the information coming from sources willing to put their name on the information they offer.