Anonymous sources are losing favor in journalism. From an ethical perspective, that’s mostly a good thing.
That’s “mostly” but not “unequivocally” good. Anonymous sources can generate some important stories. The recently revealed “Deep Throat” is a reminder of the enormous potential of anonymous sources.
The problem is that they also make a lot of readers, viewers and listeners suspicious. Secrecy raises questions about the motives of both reporter and source. It hurts the credibility and accountability of media outlets.
Journalists recoil at trying to appease their critics. But this is different. It’s a matter of trust, and if the media can’t be trusted, they can’t compete in an environment where there are innumerable sources of information.
News outlets now are putting more pressure on anonymous sources to identify themselves. If the sources won’t agree to openness, news outlets are more likely to offer a better description of the unnamed source’s profession, politics or perspective.
A major contributor to the momentum in favor of naming sources is Newsweek’s shift in policy after the magazine felt obliged to retract a brief item about a Quran being put in a toilet.
Still, that didn’t end the debate. White House officials implied the magazine owed them some good war coverage to compensate for the trouble it had caused. And then came new reports – public reports, from the Pentagon – that Qurans had been abused, after all.
Another fine mess, and another black eye for ethical journalism.
Before Newsweek, it was CBS’s embarrassment caused by an unidentified source who supplied phony documents about President Bush’s National Guard stint during the Vietnam War. At least anonymous sources are more substantial than made-up sources, which were journalism’s embarrassment in several previous cases.
“Identify sources whenever possible,” the SPJ Code of Ethics advises. Because, it explains, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” And, it adds, “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information.” But if in doggedly pursuing a story you promise not to name a source, “Keep promises,” the code says.
Here’s what Richard M. Smith, chairman and editor in chief, had to say in Newsweek’s May 30 issue after the magazine had “unequivocally retracted” its story about the flushed holy book:
“Historically, unnamed sources have helped to break or advance stories of great national importance, but overuse can lead to distrust among readers and carelessness among journalists.
“As always, the burden of proof should lie with the reporters and their editors to show why a promise of anonymity serves the reader. From now on, only the editor or the managing editor, or other top editors they specifically appoint, will have the authority to sign off on the use of an anonymous source.”
Many media have similar policies, especially in smaller markets. Journalists properly demand transparency from the sources they cover, but they also should be open about their own practices.
“We will step up our commitment to help the reader understand the nature of a confidential source’s access to information and his or her reasons for demanding anonymity,” Smith continued. The editors who rule on anonymity will ask the reporter for the source’s name and position.
“Our goal is to ensure that we have properly assessed, on a confidential basis, the source’s credibility and motives before publishing and to make sure that we characterize the source appropriately. The cryptic phrase ‘sources said’ will never again be the sole attribution for a story in Newsweek.”
Smith laid out some ethical guidelines that other media would be smart to adopt, if they haven’t already:
“When information provided by a source wishing to remain anonymous is essential to a sensitive story – alleging misconduct or reflecting a highly contentious point of view, for example – we pledge a renewed effort to seek a second independent source or other corroborating evidence. When the pursuit of the public interest requires the use of a single confidential source in such a story, we will attempt to provide the comment and the context to the subject of the story in advance of publication for confirmation, denial or correction.”
In fact, Newsweek had shown its Quran brief to “a senior Defense Department official,” who challenged one assertion (which Newsweek fixed) but said nothing about the toilet.
Daniel Okrent, outgoing public editor of The New York Times, says journalists should ask two questions before using information from sources who demand anonymity: “Is this truly important?” And, “Is this the only way for this to become known?” If the answer is not “yes” to both questions, don’t use it. Getting it right is more important than getting it first.
Using anonymous sources, with its enterprising stealth and sleuthing about, is part of the thrill and romance of journalism. But journalists have responsibilities, too, and our biggest responsibility is to give a full and accurate account of the facts we have learned and who provided them to us. If our sources have no names, our readers and listeners and viewers don’t have a full report, and we lose their trust.
Fred Brown, SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.