Media math: how $40 million turns into $3.75 million overnight

So how exactly does Donovan McNabb’s eye-popping contract with $40 million guaranteed turn into a fairly reasonable deal with a likely $3.75 million guaranteed – in roughly 24 hours?

The answer points to one of the most messy elements of reporting on sports. The NFL and its teams are privately run and have no obligation to make their inner workings -- such as contract details -- public. So reporters, including myself, are left to hound them for information, in the hopes that team executives, top coaches, agents or other insiders will share a scrap or two. Information is so scarce that those shopping it can set the terms – usually demanding anonymity, so that stories are attributed to “sources” or the slightly less vague “team sources” or “league sources.” The term may apply to a knowledgeable executive or player, but could just as easily be used to describe a talkative janitor.

And when a source doesn’t have to put his name to a statement, it gives him much more latitude to spin. After all, his credibility won’t be affected if they say something laughable – such as telling reporters McNabb’s deal is worth up to $88 million, even if it’s later revealed that he only gets that if he wins the next five Super Bowls.

Even when a source tells you something that's true -- technically, it is accurate that McNabb could earn up to $88 million -- they might be hiding important context. We don't always know if we're getting the full story, half the story, or even just a sliver of the story that serves the source's interests.

Ideally, the business would be different. But the information age isn’t ideal for vetting  stories such as this one, based entirely on inside accounts. We can refuse to grant anonymity, and force sources to put their credibility on the line when they share details, but odds are the sources will simply balk, knowing there are a dozen other reporters likely to play ball. In the age of Twitter, that can mean a lost scoop, lost edge, lost recognition of breaking the big story. Readers and viewers seem to respond to the first person who gets “breaking news,” even if the second person has more thorough and accurate information. The penalty for being wrong seems small, especially as the media machine churns and moves to the next topic. (Does anyone remember when several outlets reported the Eagles were considering cutting Michael Vick last summer?)

Sports isn’t the only area to use anonymous sources. You can find them in every section of the newspaper. But usually the sources are at least described in a way – “an official close to the president” or “a Republican staffer” -- so that you know what agenda they’re pushing.

But covering sports isn’t government, where by law certain documents must be made available, where there is a political price to pay for misleading the public and where many people have access to information – and reasons to share it. I learned this in five years covering state politics. In the NFL, though, you don’t need a Legislature or cabinet official to make something happen. In seven months covering the Eagles I’ve seen that it’s far easier to keep inside details within a small circle of officials and coaches.

My point is not to rip anyone who uses anonymous sources or the people who broke the McNabb story. Anonymity has often been used to get the public critical information that would otherwise remain secret. I’ve used anonymous sources often in my years of reporting to get information I couldn’t access any other way. I have done so while covering the Eagles, too, trusting that my sources were not misleading me.

And the more detailed reporting on McNabb’s deals also came from an anonymous source, one who apparently gave a more thorough accounting of the contract details. That’s an example of anonymity helping clear up a situation that would otherwise remain fogged.

So what’s the answer? Reporting isn’t back to the old days when reporters had all day to work a story, check it with a variety of sources and put it in print the next morning. Now, as soon as a potential scoop is confirmed, it’s up on Twitter, the Web, TV, or all three, before someone else beats us to it. My advice: wait a few days before drawing conclusions on a given story. Even if the sources remain anonymous, wait until several have been heard from, then decide what a story means – and who really got it right.