From a Malaysian air force official who didn’t want to be named in stories about missing Flight MH370 because he wasn’t authorized to speak to a “Bachelor production team insider” who tipped Us Weekly to the juicy gossip surrounding a recent contestant on the reality TV series, anonymous and unnamed sources have secured their place as staples of American journalism.
Yet quantitative evidence documenting either a rise or decline in the use of anonymous sources is hard to come by. A well-publicized study by academicians Matt Duffy and Anne E. Williams published in 2011 found that the use of unnamed sources in front-page articles in The Washington Post actually dropped by 50 percent from 1958 to 2008 — but that was just in one newspaper, and for front page stories only.
Anecdotally, though, many media observers see an increased use in such sources, especially if so-called new media is included in the mix.
“Most media outlets have decided that they’re going to use anonymous sources more for a variety of reasons, but often it’s to get a competitive advantage,” said Kelly McBride, senior ethics faculty at The Poynter Institute.
And Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, has observed journalists granting anonymity to sources even in cases where the need for doing so is nearly obscure.
“I have seen — and I see a lot of local TV news across the country because I travel a great deal — reporters and producers who routinely hide the identities in one form or fashion, either electronically or otherwise, in situations where I think the use of that technique is suspect,” he said. “That concerns me because there may not be sufficient justification to do this, but it may be a quick way for a reporter to get an on-camera interview or a sound bite and move through his or her story. But I worry that there’s not enough contemplation being given to basically the fairly narrow reasons for truly giving a source confidentially. I think it may be a matter of convenience.”
Indeed, SPJ’s own Code of Ethics addresses anonymous sources in two points:
• 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 usual justifications for granting anonymity — the information would not be available otherwise, or a whistleblower might really need to be protected against retaliation — make sense to many news professionals and perhaps many news consumers, too. But no such justification would seem to apply if one is doing a little feature on, say, Megabucks lottery sales, and the person in line at the corner gas station to buy a ticket just doesn’t want to be identified. Or if a parent picking up a child after school has an opinion on a new teachers’ contract but doesn’t want to be seen on camera. In such cases one would have to ask why the journalists didn’t just find another source.
Then there is the problem of errors linked to anonymous and unnamed sources, which is what really destroys credibility. An incorrect CNN report claiming that a suspect in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing had been arrested and was being transported to a local courthouse — attributed to a “law enforcement source” — was hugely embarrassing to the outlet, as well as to other, derivative reporting that merely cited CNN.
Early reports on the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., contained multiple errors, including the name of the suspected shooter and misinformation about his mother. Such reports often were based on anonymous sources or social media contacts that could not really be identified.
Early reports on the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., claiming she had died were based on information funneled through a press officer and a family friend and proved to be wrong.
“In both cases the reporters failed to ask how (their sources) knew she was dead,” said Kelly McBride. “Had they asked, they would have seen that the sources’ information was on very shaky ground.”
Early reports in 2012 in The Wall Street Journal that Zionists and 100 rich Jews were behind the inflammatory movie “The Innocence of Muslims” were quickly discredited. The newspaper’s original source, who was identified by a pseudonym and described as a “52-year-old Israeli-American real estate developer,” was in fact a Coptic Christian who actually produced the short film trailer.
Judith Miller’s stories in The New York Times in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq cited anonymous sources on the likelihood of finding weapons of mass destruction. Of course, no weapons were found.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in an unattributed report, and The Associated Press, citing an anonymous federal law enforcement source, both identified security guard Richard Jewell as a “focus” of the investigation into the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Jewell was vilified and ridiculed in various media but was never arrested.
“Jewell’s name became shorthand for a person accused of wrongdoing in the media based on scanty information,” Harry Weber of the AP wrote in August 2007, shortly after Jewell died of heart failure.
Most media outlets and organizations have published guidelines or policy statements allowing the use of anonymous sources (see breakout for sample excerpts) — but only as a last resort and subject to intense scrutiny as to both the source’s motives for wishing to remain anonymous and his or her qualifications for having access to the information. Oftentimes a senior editor or manager must sign off on the request for anonymity.
Ted Evanoff, business editor at The Commercial-Appeal in Memphis, said that as a rule, he does not use anonymous sources. Typically a would-be anonymous source will be used as a tipster — the paper will try to corroborate the information from other sources who are willing to go on the record, or via documentation from government reports and filings and such.
“We use information that’s in the public record to make our point,” Evanoff said.
Exceptions might include information from a whistleblower who likely would face retaliation. Yet even here, Evanoff said journalists need to be very careful. He recalled a story he was working on in another city several years ago in which a source who wished to remain anonymous claimed that a factory had fired several black employees and replaced them with undocumented immigrants at a lower wage.
“This person gave me a series of names and Social Security numbers, and using a database on Lexis-Nexis I went through names, addresses and (the last) four digits of the Social Security numbers; and what I was able to find out, these persons all had legitimate Social Security numbers and did not appear to be illegal,” he said. “Then I contacted several of the black employees and they said, yes, they’d left the company, but they weren’t fired, that they left for other reasons.”
The use of anonymous sources seems to be most prolific in political reporting and government affairs. William Freivogel, director of the Southern Illinois University (Carbondale) School of Journalism and a former reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, learned one thing fast in the 12 years he covered inside-the-Beltway politics in D.C.: Anonymity was the rule, not the exception.
“I found that nobody in government there would tell you anything interesting on the record,” he said.
Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully learned the same lesson in his early years reporting on Capitol Hill in D.C. He said he initially was awe-struck at how more senior journalists always managed to get information from “senior official this” and “a source familiar with the investigation that” and so on, apparently knowing how to work their sources really well.
He quickly learned how they did it. At one of the first briefings he attended in Washington, the press secretary announced to the gaggle of reporters present that two speakers would have to referred to as “senior White House aides.”
“’Oh, that’s how they get so many anonymous sources,’” Tully recalls thinking at the time.
Still, in a case of “from the ridiculous to the sublime,” Tully recalls asking a congressional aide about the start time of an upcoming briefing. It was a most innocuous request, but the staffer agreed to provide the information only on condition of anonymity and insisted that the information was being provided “on background.”
One way to get around the problem of anonymous sources is simply to use them as tipsters — hear them out, then corroborate the information elsewhere. That’s in fact what Evanoff and Tully often do, and what Freivogel did in his days in daily journalism. It’s also useful to confront other sources with the garnered information that they didn’t think you had; if so, they may want to talk to you after all instead of denying what can’t be denied.
But proceed with caution when listening to any source who wants anonymity.
Freivogel recalls an experience early in his career in St. Louis when he obtained good information on restaurant inspections from an anonymous source, but the same source proved to be less compelling on another story. Why? The source had posed as an investigator in the Missouri attorney general’s office (perhaps illegally, Freivogel believed) and had obtained some incriminating information about the court of criminal corrections that could not be easily corroborated by other means.
“I began to question the reliability of the information,” Freivogel said. So, he didn’t use it.
A further complication occurs when a promise of confidentiality is broken. Perhaps the most famous example of a news outlet intentionally breaking a promise in modern times was the 1982 case in which Dan Cohen, a public relations expert for the state Republican Party in Minnesota, had leaked confidential research on a political opponent. Cohen had been promised anonymity by reporters at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer-Press and Dispatch newspapers; but their editors decided not to honor the deal, arguing that the source of the leak was just as important to the readership as the leaked information itself.
The papers published Cohen’s name. Cohen lost his job; but he later won a $200,000 court judgment against the papers, arguing breach of promise.
Overall, though, the biggest and most troubling use of anonymous sources remains in the political and government arena. Last fall, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan criticized a reporter for referring to an anonymous national security source merely as “a U.S. official,” a description she found so vague as to be meaningless.
Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and researcher Sara Rafsky, in a 2013 special report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, linked a perceived rise in anonymous sourcing inside the beltway in recent years to President Barack Obama’s so-called “Insider Threat Program.” The program allegedly was designed to force government employees to spy on other employees who might be leakers, as well as to increase prosecution of suspected leakers.
The authors documented six prosecutions by the Obama administration of government leakers, plus two contractors, including NSA leaker Edward Snowden. It may not sound like a great number, but it is an increase over all previous administrations. Various government spokesmen referenced in the report denied there is an effort to suppress the free flow of information by the Obama administration.
Yet Downie and Rafsky’s bigger concern may have been that anything on the record is likely to be so “on point,” so non-controversial, as to be worthless for any serious reporting. That’s not good for a functioning democracy. One might as well be speaking to an apparatchik in the former Soviet Union or a director of communications for some multinational corporation.
Abe Aamidor, retired from The Indianapolis Star, is co-author of “Media Smackdown: Deconstructing the News and the Future of Journalism,” with Jim A. Kuypers and Susan Wiesinger. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.