Q: Why should journalists avoid pseudonyms for anonymous sources?

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It’s true that “making up names” for anonymous sources might be a good narrative device to help the reader see a source as a three-dimensional human, but a journalist is in the business of telling the truth. The use of the word “device” there is the problem. It is a little too close to deception. Breaking through that wall permeates a danger zone where the journalist has to earn back the trust they lose even from a breach like a pseudonym.

In the fallout of the Rolling Stone “A Rape on Campus Story,” Columbia Journalism Review Editor Liz Spayd asked Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll and Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Coronel about this practice.

Spayd:  Is there ever a time when a journalist should introduce fictionalized names into their work?

Coronel: Very, very rarely. If you say the source cannot be named I don’t know that you should use a pseudonym. I believe in cases where, I think the New York Times has done this, in cases where it’s an illegal immigrant and they didn’t want that immigrant to be identified that they used a pseudonym or something close to the name.

Coll: Personally, I would start with a ban and take pleadings for the once-in-a-millenium exception, because there are almost always alternatives. Obviously if you use confidential sources to bring important information to the public then you can’t also have a policy that you will never publish less than a person’s full name when they’re the subject of your reporting. It’s a question of, do you introduce fiction, affirmative fiction, because that’s what a pseudonym is. There are always ways to protect someone’s identity. If the person’s so at risk that you believe they might be in harm’s way if you used their middle name or nickname or some other form, and you still felt it was in the public interest to write about them then, well, I still wouldn’t use a pseudonym. Just call them “the soldier” or “the officer” or “the general” or whatever form of appellation is true, but not a pseudonym.

Spayd: Right. I thought there was a really good line in your report that essentially said, once you introduce fiction, it takes a real leap on the part of the reader to trust that the rest of the piece is actually true.

Spayd: In the Rolling Stone case, pseudonyms were used mainly to paper over gaps in the reporting. Of all the many reasons you might want to use pseudonyms, this one should never be considered.

Journalism guru Roy Peter Clark agrees and put it this way: “When I see, especially in a magazine story or a memoir, ‘not his real name,’ I want to add ‘not his real story.’” Pseudonyms put a barrier between what the writer knows and what they are telling the reader and this does not meet journalistic ethics.

In an article for The Poynter Institute, Clark defends a reporter’s use of pseudonyms in rare cases but ultimately considers it the “tipping point from journalism into fiction.”

He is in good company. Several news organizations have policies against the use of pseudonyms:

REUTERS Honesty in sourcing: Be honest in sourcing and never deliberately mislead the reader. Never use pseudonyms which by definition are misleading. 

NPR Don’t create pseudonyms for sources whose names we withhold.

When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we’re referring to. 

CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF JOURNALISTS Transparency: We avoid pseudonyms, but when their use is essential, and we meet the tests above, we tell our readers, listeners or viewers.

LA TIMES Precision: Fabrication of any type is unacceptable. We do not create composite characters. We do not use pseudonyms. We do not exaggerate sourcing (a single source is a “source,” not “sources.”). We do not manufacture, embroider or distort quotes, either in print or in the video and audio clips posted on our website.

Notice the headings preceding the guidelines: “Honesty,” “Transparency,” “Precision.” Journalists take their obligation to be truthful and accurate seriously. It is how they earn trust from their readers and that is the ultimate currency in news.