20/20 #16 — Don’t use my name: Anonymous sources

Why do people want to remain anonymous?

Some reasons:

  • Individuals are afraid that others will be angry at them or criticize them for what they say.
  • Public officials want to see important information made public, but do not want their public offices jeopardized by any backlash.
  • Whistleblowers are afraid they will lose their jobs if they tell what’s really going on in their organization, whether it is a private company or government office.
  • Individuals are in personal or family crisis, and would be hurt or embarrassed by telling their stories to the world.
  • People want to tell a story that makes someone else — a political opponent, a government office, an ex-boyfriend –  look bad, but don’t want to take responsibility for doing so.

Why should news organizations use anonymous sources?

Some reasons:

  • The source has important information that the public should know AND the reporter cannot get the information anywhere else.
  • The reporter can clearly explain why the source is trustworthy and why the information is reliable. (This rule should apply whether the source is anonymous or on the record.)
  • The source is an individual telling a personal story that is compelling, credible, and would be painful to reveal publicly (e.g., a victim of  child abuse.)

The New Standard cautions about using two types of anonymous sources:

  • Officials, public figures, special-interest groups or their agents who want to release information anonymously primarily to promote their agenda or embarrass and discredit opponents.
  • People expressing opinions who simply don’t want their names used, even though there is no identifiable risk involved with being identified. When deciding under what conditions to gather and publicize information, keep in mind that identity-protection should be limited to credible whistleblowers or others with genuine concerns about personal safety or retaliation. Under normal circumstances, sources must stand strongly enough behind their views to be identified.

When is your interview on the record?

Knight Citizen News Network  advises:

Generally, when you identify yourself as a journalist or blogger, your interviews are “on the record”, meaning you can identify your source by name, title and accurate description of the source’s relationship to your story subject, such as “Janet Rappaport, Brixinmorter High School principal.”  If a source asks to be anonymous after beginning the interview, everything said up to that point is generally understood legally and in standard journalistic practice to be on the record.  Sure, you can decide to be accommodating and grant the source’s request, but that’s up to you.

Verify all information and names

You need to have complete names and contact information for all sources.

Anonymous sources (and named sources, too) want their story told, they want to look good, they want to make someone else look bad. Reporting is about telling the truth. That means getting multiple points of view and multiple voices.

Legal risks

Sometimes reporters are subpoenaed and ordered to give information about sources. This is rare, but it does happen. Some reporters have served months in jail for refusing to give the names of their sources. You may think this should not happen – but you need to be aware that it DOES happen.

For discussion:

The points outlined above are not a comprehensive guide, but rather a starting point for discussion on a topic that is a constant problem for reporters and editors.

Are there different standards for anonymity for public officials and private individuals? Why or why not? What are the differences?

What’s the difference between using “a high-placed Pentagon source” and “a source in the Coleman campaign” and “someone who knows what’s going on with the Park Board”?

How can you verify information from an anonymous source?