July 30, 2001

July 30, 2001 | Commentary on Health Care

Sleeping on the Job

The Cable News Network, the respected all news giant, no longer sees it fit to tell its website visitors where it gets its news. In rather prosaic story linked from the main network's main page for most of Thursday afternoon the AOL-TimeWarner subsidiary allows reporter Christy Feig to report wishy-washy cant about AIDS prevention without even bothering to identify the source.

On Thursday, CNN obtained a pre-publication copy of National Institutes of Health report on condom use which says that existing research shows that condoms prove effective against AIDS and transmission of gonorrhea from women to men but are scientifically unproven against other sexually transmitted diseases. The report's findings bolster the contention that condoms aren't an infallible barrier against disease but it seems unlikely to change behavior since the risks of AIDS and pregnancy weigh foremost in people's minds when they decide to use condoms and condoms are reasonably effective against both. Jerry Springer's audience members, after all, don't line up to ask slutty guests about fears of syphilis.

To get a reaction to the report, however, Feig can't seem to find anyone willing to be quoted by name and won't do any research either. "Sources in the AIDS community said there is no new information in this report and they are concerned the administration will use it to promote an abstinence-only agenda," she reports. Who? Feig never says.

Good journalists use anonymous sources only when necessary. In its third and fourth ethical precepts - out of nearly forty - the Society of Professional Journalists warns reporters to "identify sources whenever feasible" and to "always question sources' motives before promising anonymity."

Now, if Feig's sources went on to prove that the report was a part of some nefarious conspiracy or evidence of the authors' misconduct, then offering them anonymity might make sense. But in they make comments so bland and politically correct that it seems difficult that people would actually insist on anonymity before making them. Feig's sources tell her that "The risk of acquiring any disease spread through genital secretions ... can be effectively reduced through consistent and correct condom use," and that, "Obviously, a condom can't protect what it doesn't cover or touch. But it can protect against the infectious agents in genital secretions." Duh.

Feig's anonymous sources then verge into politically correct incoherence. She says that her sources "contend abstinence fails more often than condoms." That's clearly impossible. While one could argue that encouraging people to use condoms represents a better public health strategy than encouraging people not to have sex, abstinence only fails when people have sex. The story then follows up with a ridiculous quote: "Abstinence, like a condom, is only effective when it is consistently used as a means of STD and HIV prevention. Young people should have access to both." Nobody, however, has figured out how to deny access to sexual abstinence. It's the default state.

Still, Feig's alleged sources' message, a call for a strategy which mixes abstinence with condom use, reflects the opinion of many people who study the issue. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control's website, a combined strategy of abstinence education and condom use remains a matter of official doctrine. The American Foundation for AIDS Research, likewise, offers a website chocked full of information pushing an AIDS strategy which heavily emphasizes condoms and further research while scorning abstinence only sex education. In any case Feig's, quotes seem rather odd and clinical, more like written statements than spoken ones. Some people do speak this way, but not many.

On Friday, in any case, the Washington Post ran a Page One story on the report chocked full of quotes from people who had served on the NIH panel responsible for its production. The story covered the facts of the report and provided a broad range of opinion without resorting to any unnamed sources. Since the NIH report hadn't been released until when the story was posted on Thursday, it's possible that people would have been reluctant to comment on the report without reading it but the ample public record on this topic would have made it easy to site printed sources or websites to provide other views. But if CNN's reporter just couldn't get a quote, she should have kept on digging until she did.

Reporters do need to use anonymous sources from time to time. A few areas of reporting, indeed, mandate granting most important news sources anonymity: Diplomats, for example, almost never make public comments about foreign politics absent a promise of confidentiality. But AIDS activists aren't diplomats. There's no excuse, indeed, for a major news organization to grant anonymity for opinions as bland as those Feig's source expressed.

Eli Lehrer is visiting fellow in the Center for Judicial and Legal Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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Originally published on National Review Online (07/23/01)