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Q: Can we trust a story with anonymous sources?

(Credit: London Allen)

A:

The short answer is, it depends. A reporter who uses anonymous sources has a much heavier lift when it comes to establishing a story’s credibility. All reporters would prefer to use named sources in their stories because information attached to a specific person is more credible and can be more easily verified. But sometimes they have no choice. Sources who work in national security or the highest levels of government may fear retribution if they speak on the record and will only share information on the condition of anonymity. Same for whistleblowers. (If you want to learn more on why reporters agree to protect a person’s identity and the ground rules for these interviews, check out my post, “Why are reporters allowed to use anonymous sources?”)

But back to the issue of trust and how you can judge the credibility of a story with anonymous sources.

It’s important to understand that using anonymous sources should be a reporter’s last resort– in exceptional circumstances. Your average news story should include multiple, named sources that offer verifiable information. But if all named sourcing options have been exhausted, the reporter has decision to make. “The formula is simple,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic on CNN’s Reliable Sources.   “What you do is you have to say, does the public’s right to know or need to know a particular piece of information outweigh the morally complicated and ambiguous qualities of anonymous sourcing. And so, most of us, most of the time, don’t rely on anonymous sourcing for most things because there are difficulties there.”

Those difficulties include a rigorous process, usually with a senior editor, to determine if an anonymous source can be used.  For example, the Associated Press rules on standards and practices say that material from anonymous sources may be used only if:

  1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation and is vital to the news report.
  2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
  3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have direct knowledge and accurate information.

In addition, the reporter’s manager must approve the use of the source and vet the information per AP guidelines. Contrary to public perception, both the reporter and the news manager know the source’s identity, and both are required to protect that anonymity.

But that’s just the beginning. The reporter then has an obligation to explain, and in a way, justify to the public the use of the anonymous source in the actual story. Here’s how they do this and what you should be looking for:  

  1. Transparency: The reporter should explain why the source requested anonymity so you can judge for yourself if the unnamed status is warranted. This type of transparency goes a long way to building trust.
  2. Description: The reporter should describe the source in a way that establishes the person’s credibility without revealing their identity. If the source is authoritative or informed by virtue of their job or firsthand knowledge, including that description increases their reliability. Simply saying, “A source says…” with no characterization is a red flag for news consumers.
  3. Corroboration: This means the reporter should consult additional sources to confirm the information. Most news outlets require corroboration by at least two sources before they publish, although AP guidelines state that in “rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”

What does this look like in practice? Take a look at this example:

Back in September 2019, the Washington Post reported that a whistleblower had filed a complaint alleging that President Trump improperly pressured a foreign leader. In the story, reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris attributed this information to “two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter…. speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.” Later in the story, they confirmed the existence of the complaint with Rep. Adam Schiff, who headed up the House Intelligence Committee. 

As you can see, the reporters disclosed why the sources requested anonymity, described them in a way that established their credibility and access to this confidential information, and then corroborated it with an on-the-record source.

When reporters handle anonymous sources like this, you can trust the story and support this practice.

And most Americans do.  According to a Pew Research poll, 82 percent of people surveyed say that there are times when it is acceptable for journalists to use anonymous sources.

So while there is a leap of faith when stories are based on unnamed sources, by knowing what to look for, you will also know which stories to trust.