Rowan Williams stepping down soon? A quick look at a possible scoop

Jonathan Wynne-Jones’ story on Rowan Williams’ future plans is careening around the internet. It begins as so:

Dr Rowan Williams is understood to have told friends he is ready to quit the highest office in the Church of England to pursue a life in academia.

The story is extremely thinly sourced. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t plausible. As we have no particular information on its plausibility, we’d like to take a look at the sourcing, which is clearly anonymous and seems to be third-hand.

Have a look at that lead again. It doesn’t attribute the information to Williams’ friends. Rather, it says that it is “understood” that these friends are in possession of this information. How the information came to be understood is deliberately obscure. This suggest that the information is third hand.

Then there is this:

Lambeth Palace would not be drawn into confirming or denying whether the archbishop will be leaving next year.

The phrase “next year” certainly adds urgency to the story, but it is introduced not by a source, but by the Telegraph in a question to Lambeth Palace. This is a reporter reporting on what the reporter has said.

Wynne-Jones is basically asking us to take this story on trust. As someone who has watched him work his sources, I can’t dismiss the possibility that he has a major scoop here. But, were I his editor, I’d be uncomfortable with the verbal maneuvering my paper had engaged in to hide the fact that we weren’t really leveling with our readers on where our information came from, and hence giving them no opportunity to weigh its veracity for themselves.

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