By Mark Glassman April 7, 2014
Anonymous sources are a pain for everyone. Readers hate them because they call into question the accuracy of a story. Reporters hate them because they inevitably involve a long conversation with an editor. Editors hate them because they’re increasingly taboo. Even the sources themselves can be uncomfortable with their decision to speak anonymously. They may be frustrated they couldn’t self-identify; they may be nervous that they will be found out. Maybe that’s why journalists are using them less.
A 2011 study that tracked the use of anonymous sources by The New York Times and The Washington Post found that the practice peaked around 1978 – when about half of the papers’ front page stories cited unnamed sources – and has declined significantly since then. By 2008, the percentage of stories with anonymous quotes was closer to 25 percent.
Some still see room for improvement. Last month, Margaret Sullivan, The Times’ Public Editor and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, began an occasional series in which she tracks what she calls “the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations” in the paper. In her first such column, she singled out two reporters who had given unnamed sources too much leeway. More examples are on the way.
With this level of scrutiny, why use anonymous sources at all? The short answer is that they still yield valuable information that serves the public trust. Without them, business reporters would lose their ability to report much of corporate news about merger plans, impending layoffs or new products. They’d have a harder time breaking legal stories about regulatory violations. And those hot media blurbs about who’s leaving ABC News for NBC Sports? Gone, at least until the announcement — but who wants to wait for that?
Journalists approach anonymous sourcing more responsibly today than they once did. They make more of an effort to offer some identifying detail about the source that doesn’t compromise their identity but gives readers a reason to trust their claims. They’re “senior Pentagon officials,” “former clients of the defendant,” or “people close to the deal” rather than just “sources.” Recently, more news organizations have started requiring reporters to include in their stories brief explanations of why they granted anonymity. Federal regulators, for example, are often given anonymity because they are not authorized to comment on ongoing investigations. These kinds of descriptions can offer transparency, but they can also be clumsy, or worse, uninformative.
Even when reporters are acting responsibly, not all stories warrant anonymous sources. So when is it okay to grant anonymity? Like most tough questions in journalism, there’s no hard and fast answer, but here are six questions business reporters can ask themselves to help them decide.
Before talking to anyone, it’s a good idea to know what you can actually offer in the way of anonymity. Some publications have zero-tolerance policies or are notoriously strict. USA Today founder Al Neuharth strongly discouraged editors from allowing unnamed sources in the paper, calling them “the root of evil in journalism.” Others could care less. Henry Blodget, the chief executive and editor-in-chief of Business Insider, has said his site would offer anonymity “to any source at any time for any reason.”
Most newsrooms take a more balanced approach, but they typically caution that anonymity should be offered only as a last resort. Reuters’s handbook tells its reporters to “press (their) sources to go on the record.” The Associated Press requires that reporters looking to grant anonymity get permission from a manager, who must also be told the source’s identity.
You don’t have to watch “House of Cards” to see sources lying or stretching the truth from time to time. When they do it and they’re anonymous, they may not suffer any consequences. That’s why it’s critical that an unnamed source be someone you can trust.
Do some homework. Does the source have a relationship with another reporter within the organization? If so, ask about how trustworthy they are. (Just don’t disclose that you’re planning to source them anonymously.) Use some intuition. Does the source have some motivation to color the story a particular way or otherwise misrepresent the situation? (In fact, a reporter should always vet a source, regardless of their desire for anonymity. As Kurt Anderson wrote in New York magazine in 2005, “There are ten or a hundred times as many on-the-record lies as unattributed lies in the press every day.”)
Grant anonymity only in exchange for a new fact that helps you to break a story. A company is planning to shutter a plant. An environmental watchdog is preparing to file a lawsuit. A chief executive is putting his affairs in order because he or she plans to step down. This kind of information can make using an unnamed source worthwhile. Conversely, you don’t want to grant anonymity only to let a source opine or speculate. NPR specifically prohibits allowing sources to “offer anonymous opinions of others,” including attacks.
There are many paths to breaking a story, so don’t offer a source anonymity for a piece of information you can snoop out on your own. Keep in mind that sources may not always be aware that the information they’re sharing is not particularly sensitive. For example, an employee working at a company preparing a new product launch may be unaware the corporate communications team has already leaked a press release about it to selected journalists. Always make sure that what you’re getting is truly exclusive.
In some cases, you may be able to use information from an anonymous source to leverage a story onto the record. For instance, you might tell a spokesman that you’re about to break a story about an upcoming recall at his company. At that point, they may confirm the story in order to issue a response, saving you the trouble of sourcing anonymously.
A one-source story is never ideal, and when that source is anonymous, you are asking a lot of the reader. Try to support the source’s claims with some evidence, say a shared document or even another anonymous source. To the extent you can, describe how the sources know what they know and why they should be trusted.
Not every story is Watergate. Sometimes, it’s better to cultivate a relationship with a source over time than to put them at risk by using something that he or she gives you anonymously and might cause them trouble. Think strategically about the gambles you’re both taking. A story about a product defect is nice. A story about a systemic breakdown in quality control might win a Pulitzer Prize. Make sure your source is around for the latter.
Mark Glassman (MS, 2005), is a Data Visualization Producer at Bloomberg, and a former teaching assistant at the Columbia Journalism School.
This entry was posted on Monday, April 7th, 2014 at 3:56 pm. It is filed under Featured, Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with anonymous sources, business journalism, journalism ethics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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