I caught a little bit of criticism last week after my story about the IFP Jane Minton ouster came out, based on my use of anonymous sources. I admit that I was a little bit torn about my reliance on them for the story, and debated whether it was prudent to leave them in. In the end, I decided that since I had several people telling me similar things, I felt comfortable using them, although I’m open for feedback about more specific parameters about when an anonymous source can be used, and how it can be used.
Generally, I’m very wary of the practice. I often have people emailing me about controversial stories that they think I should cover, and invariably I kind of “vet” the story with the person, asking them questions like—is what you are telling me a first hand account? If not, can you get me the name and phone number of the person who can tell me a first hand account? If the answer is “no,” it definitely makes me lean toward not covering the story. If all you are going on is rumors, you don’t have much at all.
The IFP story falls under the kind of story that is extremely difficult to write. Like other “struggling arts organization” stories that I’ve covered over the years, I can usually find people to tell me what happened, but often the people that know what really happened don’t want their name to be publicized. That could be a legal reason, or maybe they don’t want to put their position in jeopardy, but also, because in many ways this is a small arts community. This isn’t like New York where you could burn a bridge and find other opportunities. Everybody knows everybody here, and it’s all very insular.
I’m still torn about whether I was right—not about whether to use anonymous sources at all—but about whether to use the amount of quoted material from one particular source, who also happened to be a former staff member. While I did double check all of that person’s statements with other sources, and while I made an attempt to show the other side of the story as well, I wonder now if I should have been a little more sparing in my use of actual quotes.
What do you think? Should journalists never use anonymous sources, or are there times that you think it is okay? Is quoting an anonymous person fair? I appreciate your responses!