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Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Ethics Toolbox

Don’t over-quote the most prolific source: unnamed

By Andrew Seaman

He is one of the people in modern history most quoted by journalists. He knows everything, but goes by many names. Some call him an official. Some call him a source close to the matter. Others just call him anonymous. After years of work, many say he should be forced into retirement.

The use of anonymous sources is always a topic of debate and examination in journalism. But the debate became more intense when Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, published a report on the paper’s flippant use of anonymous and confidential sources.

In one case, a Times reporter granted anonymity because a Hollywood source thought being quoted would make her look bad. Another source was granted anonymity because talking might embarrass her daughter, who was a college sophomore.

I agree with Sullivan that anonymous sources — in various forms — are crucial to journalism. However, like a mother’s good silverware, anonymous sources are only to be used under special and rare circumstances. As she points out, the examples cited from the Times do not meet the criteria of needing anonymity.

As the newly updated SPJ Code of Ethics was being debated, the wording regarding anonymous and confidential sources was carefully crafted throughout the revisions. Both sides of the argument over the use of anonymous sources have valid points.

On one hand, every source has a reason for wanting to talk with journalists. In many cases, their motive is to inform their fellow citizens of an event. In others, it’s for some sort of personal gain. The public is entitled to as much information about a source so they can also be a judge of that person’s motives.

On the other hand, some reporters might say that certain sources will not talk unless they are granted anonymity. If a journalist refuses, the source will take the information to a competing news organization. One popular line I’ve heard more than once: Washington doesn’t work without anonymous sources.

The position of SPJ’s Code is that it does not like how Washington works.

“Journalists should identify sources clearly,” the Code says. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

The Code says that journalists should consider sources’ motives before granting anonymity. They should “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere,” the Code says. “Explain why anonymity was granted.”

While the Code gives journalists a lot to unpack in those few lines, one of the most important words to internalize is “granted.” Anonymous sources don’t exist unless journalists create them.

Journalists should stop to ask themselves whether the information gained from granting anonymity is worth the trouble. Does the story need the information added by the person demanding anonymity?

If so, and a source is unwilling to go on the record with his or her name, journalists have options. They should explain why granting anonymity isn’t always a given. Perhaps the person will be persuaded to go on the record.

If that fails, journalists should ask about alternative sources for that information. They should ask the person for the names of other people who can go on the record. Additionally, journalists should ask whether that information can be found in any documents.

In general, it should be standard practice for journalists to ask for other sources to corroborate accounts, stories and information.

In the very rare cases when anonymity is granted, it’s important for sources and journalists to detail the specifics of their agreement. What does anonymity mean? Is the information on background? What does “on background” mean? Can the journalist describe the source in another way? There should be no ambiguity.

When including the information, journalists should as thoroughly as possible explain the reason for granting anonymity. Most importantly, journalists need to keep the promises they make, according to SPJ's Code.

Ultimately, journalists — not just news organizations — need to take a stand against the overuse of unnamed and anonymous sources. People who don’t have appropriate reasons to need the protection of anonymity can’t force the hands of journalists if no other reporter complies with their inappropriate demands.

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