Every time we quote an anonymous source, a reader’s trust is strained.
Seeing unattributed assertions makes readers question the motives and honesty of someone willing to attack but unwilling to attach a name. They also may wonder what the newspaper’s up to
Because editors and reporters know the hazards, we don’t take lightly the decision to use something from someone we don’t identify.
In my 40-year career as a newspaper journalist, no decision was tougher than those around trading anonymity for information.
Even so, anonymous sources have become as fundamentally essential to American journalism as they are troubling.
When I was a young reporter here, an official at the Georgia Department of Transportation contacted me to tell me something important.
On orders from the top, the department was manipulating traffic models to justify building a controversial and expensive road through the heart of the city.
This person had firsthand information, but feared for his or her job if it came to light that they had spoken to a reporter at the Journal-Constitution.
The information was credible and newsworthy. More important, I had no other way to obtain the information.
I discussed it with my editor, who discussed it with his boss and so on until we were green-lighted to publish the official’s account of what had transpired. I spoke to another official at the GaDOT, who verified — also not for attribution — the account of my source. So, we stripped the story across the top of Page 1. The plans for the road soon were scaled back dramatically.
Thus it has been in the news business for a long time. These are Faustian deals that can turn bad.
In reporting on the theory developed by law enforcement that Richard Jewell was the likely bomber during the Atlanta Olympics, we relied on credible and unidentified sources. We accurately reported that the FBI had focused on Jewell and what had fueled their suspicions. Our sources were wrong; Jewell was not their man.
And at about the same time, Stephen Glass of the New Republic was found to be fabricating sources and building a career on stories built on these fabrications.
Not long after, Jayson Blair was forced to resign from The New York Times for plagiarizing and making up parts of his stories.
We went through a period or two at the AJC when we banned unidentified sources. But this policy was perhaps even more damaging to our journalism — keeping good stories out of the paper and forcing reporters to do back flips to match information being reported elsewhere.
These experiences shaped my thinking over the years as I rose through the ranks at the AJC. In time I became senior managing editor, and it was up to me to decide when we would allow anonymous sources in the paper.
Here was my basic test:
- Is the person in position to know the information firsthand?
- Does the newsroom know the source’s identity?
- Does the person have a legitimate reason not to be identified?
- Have we exhausted every other avenue to obtain the information?
- Does the information add materially to the public’s understanding of an issue of importance?
If the answer to all is yes, then I’m OK with granting anonymity.
But further conditions apply: We must avoid providing these folks platform to air personal grievances, theories and opinions (unless of course your boss is the president). We must explain to readers what we are doing and provide as specific a description as possible of the person’s position and risk if exposed. Finally, we must fiercely protect their identities.
Even when these standards were met, I remained queasy. By their very nature the use of anonymous sources asks readers to travel with us from the bedrock of facts to the shifting landscape of trust. Each time we use an anonymous source we test relationships with readers that take years to build. Each time we risk eroding hard-earned trust.
The unidentified source debate reached some kind of odd crescendo this past week. In writing his new and damning book about President Trump, Bob Woodward relied on people speaking to him freely in exchange for his assurance of anonymity. In his many books, Woodward projects a sense of omniscience to construct a seamless narrative told through the eyes of those who were there. He presents his work as meticulous renderings of history. Yet, he has his critics, some accusing him of everything from being boring and impassive to manufacturing interviews. I suspect he and I would tangle if I were to edit him for the higher standard of newspaper publication.
But the bigger story was the New York Times’ publication of a scathing and anonymous essay by a senior White House official. The piece was deeply critical of Trump’s style and intellect, yet apparently was intended to reassure us that he/she and others in the “steady state” have this and will keep order even if it means undermining the president.
The Times has come under considerable criticism – not the least of which from the White House – for its decision to publish the piece anonymously. (In the president’s view the author is a “TRAITOR?” abetted by the “failing” Times.)
Setting aside the merits of what the writer wrote, is the Times’ decision sound journalism?
Well, it meets my standards.
The Times said it satisfied itself that the official’s identity is authentic and he/she has firsthand knowledge. He/she had something important to say that couldn’t be obtained any other way. And, finally, he/she would almost certainly lose his/her job if identified.
It is up to the citizenry to debate whether the author should have resigned in protest or gone to the Times and whether what he or she wrote matters.
Presented with this particular essay, the Times had no choice.
The job of journalists is to inform debate, not temper it.