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Using anonymous sources

June 8, 2008

Those of you who work with me know already that I’m not a fan of anonymous sources: I believe they significantly diminish the credibility of the source, reporter, story and publication to which they are connected. Why?

  1. The Source: If you want to put forth your information, you should be willing to put forth your name. (There are exceptions to this, of course, such as the drug dealer who fears a retribution killing, but the exceptions should be that extreme.)
  2. The Reporter: A reporter who can’t get his or her sources to go on the record is clearly less talented than those who can; moreover, whenever I see that a reporter has failed to name a source, I wonder whether the source truly exists. As a reader, how can I really know whether “a University of Vermont sophomore” represents an unnamed source or merely the person that the reporter wishes he or she could have interviewed?
  3. The Story: If I see an unnamed source in a story, I consider the story untrustworthy. If the reporter can provide a named, trustworthy source for every unnamed source, then I consider the story more trustworthy—and I’d encourage the reporter, in this case, to eliminate the unnamed source.
  4. The Publication: Why not eliminate ALL names from a publication? After all, the reporters would have an easier time in life if they weren’t ticking off their sources. The editors wouldn’t have such a problem if they could print what they wanted without fear of accountability. Of course, most sources would rather get out their ideas without having to truly stand up for what they believe . . . OR, instead, we could support the idea that freedom of speech requires the courage to stand by what you say. Let’s not be a bunch of gossips spreading . . . gossip. Let’s be journalists presenting well-documented FACTS.

Finally, let me say the obvious: No credible news source is anonymous. Some, however, are unnamed. (The reporter, at least, knows who the source is.) Let’s allow the reader to know who the source is, as well. the reader deserves that level of respect.

Here’s an interesting piece by the public editor of the NY Times about the use of anonymous sources.

A STUDY that I requested by students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism suggests that The Times has made progress in its effort to set higher standards for using anonymous sources, the lifeblood and the bane of journalism…….

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