The use—and abuse—of anonymous sources is an ongoing and thorny debate in journalism. Reporters always prefer to use named sources who are willing to go “on the record,” meaning that the information they provide can be attributed directly to them. But sometimes that’s just not possible.
Stories involving national security, corruption, or an abuse of power often lead reporters to sources who could lose their jobs, their freedom, or even their lives for sharing what they know. Sometimes, anonymous sources are the only way to confirm a story of great public interest, as in the case of “Deep Throat,” the source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until 2005, that a former associate director of the FBI named Mark Felt—by then in poor health and in his 90s—revealed that he was Deep Throat. Even his family didn’t know.
But the use of anonymous sources can also lead to significant errors and public distrust of the news media. Some recent examples include:
- A CNN story citing a single anonymous source that said Congress was investigating a Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials.
- A Washington Post story based on unnamed officials that Russian hackers had penetrated the US electric grid.
- And just a month ago, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell retracted a story credited to a single, unverified source that Russian billionaires with ties to Vladimir Putin had co-signed a loan by Deutsche Bank for President Trump.
Other times, just revealing some details about an anonymous source, even in a spirit of transparency to gain readers’ trust, can backfire. Perhaps you’ve been following the current debate over the whistleblower complaint against President Trump. When the New York Times decided to reveal that the whistleblower is a former CIA official assigned to the White House, many people, including journalists and the general public, criticized the Times for disregarding the source’s desire to remain anonymous and potentially endangering that source. Some critics have also argued that future would-be whistleblowers might be more reluctant to share privileged information lest their identities be revealed by a news organization.
Deputy Managing Editor of the New York Times Matt Purdy calls stories based on anonymous sources “potential journalistic IEDs”—or improvised explosive devices—because they may explode unexpectedly and damage the New York Times and its credibility. In fact, the New York Times launched a new policy to restrict the use of anonymous sources in 2016 after it had to make multiple corrections to a story about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of a personal email account as secretary of state because the information from unnamed government officials was wrong.
Most news organizations say they will grant anonymity to a source only as a last resort, but in reality, it happens on a daily basis, which makes it even more important to explain this practice to the public.
The term anonymous can be misleading, but contrary to this tweet by President Trump, anonymous sources cited by legitimate news outlets are real, and the reporter and at least one senior editor know who the source is and have vetted them for credibility.
The reporter and editor decide together whether to grant anonymity based on the source’s position, the information provided, and the reason the source wishes to remain unnamed. They will also consider why a source is willing to provide that information: does it advance a personal agenda, attack a rival, or offer information of great public interest?
While every news organization has its own guidelines on anonymous sources, here are the general ground rules:
- The source must have firsthand knowledge and evidence of what is being revealed.
- The information provided is of high value and cannot be obtained in any other way.
- The source has legitimate and compelling reasons why the information cannot be attributed.
- The report must describe anonymous sources as clearly as possible without revealing their identity. For example, NPR says in its Ethics handbook: “Our goal is to tell listeners and readers as much as we can about why this person is being quoted. So, for example, ‘a senior White House official who was at the meeting and heard what the president said,’ is the type of language we use. ‘An official’ is not.”
- No pseudonyms to replace real names.
The Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics offers these guidelines on anonymous sources:
- Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
- Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
The final point to “keep promises” reminds reporters that agreeing to protect a source’s identity is a big commitment that could land the reporter in jail if they refuse to disclose a source in a court of law. Most states have some type of shield law that protects journalists and their sources, but there is no federal shield law, and in cases involving national security, a reporter can be jailed for refusing to reveal their sources. Case in point: New York Times reporter Judy Miller was jailed for 85 days in 2005 for refusing to disclose her confidential source. She only got out when her source, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, released her from confidentiality.
If you made it this far, you now know more about anonymous sources than 99 percent of the public. While they can be problematic, most journalists believe they cannot do their job without them. In fact, the Washington Post once tried—and failed according to this story recounted by Paul Farhi:
Back in its pre-“Deep Throat” days, The Post tried an experiment. Faced with the Nixon administration’s manipulative use of off-the-record sourcing, then-executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee announced a no-more-unnamed-sources policy, banning any story based on one, according to Ben Bagdikian, at the time an assistant managing editor at the paper.
As a result, Bagdikian wrote, “The Post’s competitors, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, published important news stories that The Post did not have. The paper’s readers were deprived of significant information. For a fierce competitor like Bradlee, that was intolerable.”
And so the experiment was dropped — after two days.