The scourge of ‘anonymous sources’

What used to be an exception in journalism seems to have become a norm: affording anonymity to sources offering some unattainable insight, intentionally-hidden fact, or, it seems, juicy gossip.

If-and-when to grant anonymity is one of the more controversial discussions in the journalism realm, and it should be.

A written, broadcast, Tweeted, Instagrammed, or whatever, record of a story or claim needs to carry credibility and provability, lest one be attacked for ‘fake news.’

[You can also support this post on Medium. A version of this essay will be featured in a forthcoming book on journalism and baking]

At the same time, the eternal news cycle has led some journalists to seek big stories on tighter deadlines, and has led some sources to fear being pilloried by trolls and legitimate critics alike.

But this prevalence of ‘anonymous sources’ is attempting to address a symptom, and not the disease.

The serious and the silly-ish

In September 2018, The New York Times just about broke the internet when it published an unsigned opinion piece from someone who claimed to “work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

The piece “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”instantly drew condemnation and support that crossed ideological and journalistic lines.

The Times knew publishing an anonymous opinion piece of this magnitude demanded an explanation, and would attract criticism.

The editor’s note at the top of the unsigned NYT opinion piece.

Confidentiality and trust are the coins of the journalistic realm, and to inform the public, journalists need to be able to inform themselves.

But we are no longer in a time when a journalist’s word is enough — and I say this as a journalist. We need to be held accountable to ourselves, our audience, and our communities.

We need to be able to show our work, knowing that legitimate and less-legitimate critique will be coming.

‘Fake news’ is not the norm, but that phrase has been used to smear legitimate and important journalism because the covenant of trust — or the appearance of it — between journalists and the public has been damaged.

This, I think, should lead to tighter controls on the use of anonymity, not looser.

Yet we see unnamed sources cropping up in all kinds of stories because they’re not authorized to speak, or they don’t want to get blackballed politically or professionally.

Part of a report on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s treatment of staff.

A recent story about Senator and presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar’s treatment of staff is a good example of a story when anonymity probably isn’t necessary.

Former staffers, fearing retribution, offered stories about Klobuchar’s alleged behavior toward staff, and those claims were held up next to internal e-mails as corroboration.

Whether the stories are true is beside the point with anonymity like this. The public should know who is making a claim, what motivation they may have, and how credible they are.

The Society of Professional Journalists gives two pointed thoughts:

  1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
  2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

News outlets have robust editorial hierarchies in place — and the NYT is the best-of-the-best, don’t get me wrong — but those hierarchies don’t mean much to huge segments of the population that are anti-‘media’ or generally journalist-averse.

And putting faceless or nameless persons in news stories is perpetuating the internet-age culture of no accountability in the anonymous criticisms lobbed from near and far.

Back in my day…

I’d like to say this issue is new, and we’re in uncharted territory, but we all know that’s not the case.

In 2013, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi put it well:

According to sources who didn’t insist on anonymity, more and more sources are speaking to the news media on the condition of anonymity for the oddest of reasons.

And this is not just a U.S. phenomenon, as Canadian readers are having a similar conversation right now.

Journalists at one time — and still today — spoke with ‘anonymous sources’ on background, and used that insight to guide them to people who would go on the record, or documents that show the record.

But those anonymous persons are now the ones in the stories.

PR strategies and message control are much more sophisticated now, and social media can destroy a person’s reputation in a matter of days, hours, or minutes. (See Jon Ronson’s book or Ted Talk on shame, if you dare.)

So it’s sometimes harder to get people on the record, especially with sensitive stories or topics.

But journalists need not cheapen this tool of granting anonymity.

We can’t build or regain trust from a public that is ever more skeptical of the press, by failing to find flesh-and-blood people to go on the record.

Some stories demand anonymity to protect someone’s life, to protect a national security secret, and the like. And the sources demand that protection.

But those cases are somewhat rare, and granting anonymity should be, too.

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