What every journalist should know about anonymous sources

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During a workshop in South Sudan last year, reporters voiced concern that some media organizations were using anonymous sources to further personal agendas and attack political enemies.

There was a consensus that accurate, fair and reliable reporting was being undermined and that reader trust was at stake in the fledgling democracy steeped in political conflict.

Their ethical instincts rated a gold star.

Media professionals everywhere in the world grapple with the thorny issue of anonymity. It can be a double-edged sword.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), “Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking a big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.”

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The SPJ code of ethics makes two important points on anonymity:

  • Identity sources whenever possible. The public is entitled to as much information as can be provided on sources’ reliability.
  • Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

The problem surfaced recently in The New York Times’ newsroom. In March, the newspaper’s top management cracked down on anonymity, sparked by readers’ complaints about “persistent” use of unnamed sources. The new guidelines require editors to approve the use of anonymity in stories.

“Direct quotes from anonymous sources should be used rarely, and only when such quotes are pivotal to the story,” according to the July 15 article explaining the crackdown. “At least one editor must know the specific identity of any anonymous source before publication.”

The tighter standards appear to be working. In July, Phil Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, reported a “measurable drop,” around 30 percent, in anonymous sourcing.

Here are some resources that can help. The Online News Association (ONA) offers a Build Your Own Ethics Code tool that contains specific guidance for using anonymous sources. The process focuses on a series of questions:

  • What is the source’s reason for wanting not to be identified?
  • Is the information available elsewhere?
  • Do you trust the source?
  • Will the information come out soon anyhow?
  • Is the source eager or reluctant?
  • Is the source powerful or vulnerable?
  • Are the source and information worth going to jail for?

The module reminds us: “Before a journalist grants confidentiality, you should have a detailed discussion of the source’s reasons for wanting to avoid accountability, which is what happens when you don’t name sources. Tell the source that your stories are more credible and your sources more accountable when you use their names and gain a thorough understanding of the source’s motivation.”

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When I meet with media managers, I suggest appointing a newsroom committee to develop or refresh guidelines for anonymous sources. I provide a packet of materials — case studies, exercises and handouts — that can help lead the way.

During workshops, I assign participants to provide a story from a newspaper, magazine or online posting that contains unnamed sources. We then work in small groups to decide whether the anonymity was justified using these guidelines:

  • Information from source must be important and absolutely vital to the story
  • It cannot be based on personal opinion
  • Information could not be obtained any other way
  • Source is highly reliable and in a position to know

When I use this exercise, I provide a handout created from NPR’s code on anonymous sourcing. This document is comprehensive, easy to digest and can be a model for newsrooms anywhere in the world where journalists are concerned with building trust and credibility.

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