There’s a place for anonymous sources, but you have to have rules
As this is being written –although it probably will have changed by the time you’re reading this – the Big Issue of the Moment is anonymous sources.
People on both sides of the issue, some of whom even know what they’re talking about, are weighing in about the use of unnamed people in two places: “Fear,” Bob Woodward’s book about the Trump White House’s inner workings, and the New York Times, which ran an anonymous editorial from a highly placed administration official who wrote about members of Trump’s staff trying to monkey-wrench the president’s worst instincts.
Professionally speaking, it’s one of those issues I most likely will never have to face. I could someday be proven wrong, but mostly likely you’ll never see a story in The Breeze with an unnamed source.
The reasons are both practical and ethical.
Actually, the practical reason is probably the more important. Wauneta is a small town. Even if I took every precaution to keep a source’s name anonymous, it’s likely everybody in town would know who it is. Not a lot of places for a person to hide here.
But the ethical reasons apply everywhere. There are times when anonymous sources can and should be used, but even then it’s an ethical minefield.
Most publications have rather strict guidelines on when and how anonymous sources should be used. Basically, there has to be a good reason and the information has to be so reliable as to be beyond question.
Determining its reliability relies on that most basic of reporter’s tools, the B.S. detector.
It’s something that can only be developed through experience (and by getting hoodwinked a time or two).
I like to think mine is pretty good. I learned a long time ago that when a little bell goes off in the back of my mind, no matter how quietly, I should listen to it. I once kept a newspaper I worked on from getting hoaxed by someone who wanted to plant a bogus story. I based it on a couple of very small facts that didn’t ring true, but mostly on the tone of the guy’s voice. There was just something off about it, although as liars go, the guy was good.
But let’s say the information seems reliable. The next step is to confirm it elsewhere. You bounce it off other people and if they confirm it, you’re sort of good to go.
After that first step, you have to begin balancing the benefits of keeping someone anonymous vs. the very real question of how that will affect whether people believe the story. In a word, its credibility.
In a perfect world, if somebody had something important to say, they’d always put their name to it. I do that every day, but then, it’s part of why they pay me.
When it comes to the credibility of Woodward’s book, it’s pretty much beyond dispute. He and Carl Bernstein made their bones on Watergate, a story they were able to break largely due to a guy they only referred to as Deep Throat. He’s one of history’s great anonymous sources, as well as probably the only one named after a porn movie.
But their editor put them under very clear and severe rules on how they could use the information. It turned out virtually everything they learned from him was reliable, largely due to those rules they were working under.
And having been well-served by the rules the first time, even though his editor is long dead, Woodward has continued to follow the same rules.
(Some of those quoted in the book have already said some things never happened, but they have every reason in the world to lie about that. And even if only 20 percent of what’s in the book proves true, it’s still pretty devastating.)
With the Times editorial, the reaction has been somewhat more interesting. It’s run from “he’s confirming what Woodward wrote” to “the duplicitous, cowardly jerk should resign and out himself.”
Personally, I see both sides on this one, although I tend to come down on the side that both the writer (or writers) and the Times did the right thing. My feeling is that things in Washington are so dangerous right now that whatever is done to solve them must be done quickly.
Still, it’s one of those events in which a good case can be made for either side.
One of the problems with anonymous sources is they’ve been overused for maybe 30 years. I wish I had a nickel for every story I’ve read that said, “A source speaking on condition of anonymity said the sky is blue.” A lot of that is just laziness on the part of reporters.
But last week proved that anonymous sources have a place –sometimes, a crucial place. Sometimes, they’re the only way to get the most important information before the public. And if certain rules are followed, most of the time they can be trusted.
Yeah, I’m hedging some. But then, journalism is as much art as science. And like any art, it rarely lends itself to uncomplicated questions.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: email@example.com