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SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers
Anonymous Sources

Few ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources. Keep your promise not to identify a source of information and it’s possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge and a jail cell. On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source and it’s just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

Anonymous sources certainly have a checkered journalistic history. None is more famous and perhaps none was more important than Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” the FBI source who helped The Washington Post unravel the White House cover-up of the Watergate break-in. And perhaps none was more infamous than those Janet Cooke invented to concoct her fictitious Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a child heroin addict.

Anonymity is the name of the Washington game. Everyone seems to be an administration or congressional source or a law enforcement or military source. Politics and ego-stroking seem to dissolve everyone into “unnamed.” A New York Times columnist arguing about a published article with three senior White House aides even referred to President Obama as one of “four senior members of the administration” in a subsequent column.

Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.

The SPJ Code of Ethics contains two pointed statements on anonymous sources:

1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.

The most important professional possession of journalists is credibility. If the news consumers don’t have faith that the stories they are reading or watching are accurate and fair, if they suspect information attributed to an anonymous source has been made up, then the journalists are as useful as a parka at the equator.

To protect their credibility and the credibility of their stories, reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources. If the only way to publish a story that is of importance to the audience is to use anonymous sources, the reporter owes it to the readers to identify the source as clearly as possible without pointing a figure at the person who has been granted anonymity. If the investigating police officer confirms John Doe has been arrested, the officer is a “source in the police department” and not even a pronoun should point to the gender.

2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

The information-gathering business is a give-and-take practice with a lot of public officials. Some are willing to provide information only when it benefits them. When someone asks to provide information off the record, be sure the reason is not to boost her own position by undermining someone else’s, to even the score with a rival, to attack an opponent or to push a personal agenda. Media outlet practices vary, but journalists should not overlook the danger of legal problems and credibility damage from publishing anonymously sourced information that is not confirmed by public records or credible sources. Before journalists allow themselves to be used by an anonymous source they should be sure to question whether the news value warrants whatever the source hopes to accomplish.

Journalists should never take information off the record without the approval of a supervisor and an understanding of the news outlet’s policy. Some organizations do not allow anonymous sources except in the most vital news stories. Journalists also should make sure they and their source are talking about the same agreement. Does off-the-record mean the information can never be used, can be used if another source confirms the information on the record or public records substantiate, or simply the information can be used as long as the source’s name is not used (a city official, an employee of the football team, etc.) And publishing information without verification from multiple sources, even if they are all off the record, is a dangerous practice.

Agreeing not to attribute the information to the source and then breaking the promise has two negative consequences for journalists. First, it damages the credibility of the promise-breaker and the media outlet he or she works for. Others with important information may decline to provide information off or even on the record if the reporter is not trustworthy. And second, there is at least one instance in which a person lost his job because the reporter who promised him confidentiality broke it, and the unemployed source sued the newspaper and won.

The wisdom of using anonymous sources has been the subject of an ongoing debate in journalism for years. The “anonymous source tracker” at the website inkstainedwretch.com dispels any notion that anonymous sources are used rarely today. [Editor's note, November 2017: inkstainedwretch.com, which was active at the time this paper was released, no longer is online.] Reporters and editors must weigh the cost of relying on anonymous sources.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the Committee by Michael Farrell, Ph.D., director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He is a member of SPJ's Ethics Committee.

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