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The Golden Rule #5

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

By definition, the word anonymous means, according to Merriam-Webster Online, “not named or identified,” “of unknown authorship or origin,” and “lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability”. These are three fundamentally different definitions, and the first two raise problems for journalists.

When anonymous means “not named or identified,” a reporter knows the source’s name, credentials, or other vital information, but the source chose to remain anonymous for important reasons that include personal safety, job security, classified information, political affiliations, etc. The reasons are not always nefarious nor do they reflect the authenticity or accuracy of the information itself. If information from anonymous sources is accurate and credible, a reporter may owe this anonymity to the source if the reasons are justified. When anonymous means “of unknown authorship or origin,” a reporter does not know the source’s name, identity, credentials, or other vital information. This type of anonymous source should raise caution flags; however, those flags don’t automatically mean the information is unusable. If reporters investigate the information and find it credible and accurate, it still may be publishable.

No absolute rule for using anonymous sources should preside because every context is different. The debate within the industry itself about the use of anonymous sources is evidence that using them is a matter of personal or institutional ethics. Using anonymous sources sparingly may be journalistically sound if the reporting is driven and inspired by sound, ethical decision-making. These are not easy judgments, and in all instances, journalists should resort to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and its two valuable statements about anonymity: “Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”

This article from the American Journalism Review reveals just how confusing the use of “unnamed sources” is within the industry. However, Geneva Overholser, who holds the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism, writes in “Anonymity: Father of Many a Sin,” “Anonymity allows the media to be used. It robs readers of any way to judge the source. It lets people speak without taking responsibility. It undermines our credibility. Yet it is common practice among our most revered journalists.” Overholser is not alone in adamantly rejecting the use of anonymous sources.

However, many media organizations use them, which raises this question: isn’t the public also entitled to know which definition of anonymous is being used? Too often, reporters and editors use “anonymous” without clarifying its context (such as in this statement: “an anonymous source told The Post yesterday”), but the public needs to know “as much information as possible on sources’ reliability,” even if that requires adding another clause or sentence, or possibly another paragraph, to the article. Reporters should also responsibly explain why a source has requested anonymity. Not doing so is for reporters and newspapers an invitation to Trouble.

But is “anonymous” even the right word, especially in the first instance above, when a reporter knows the source’s identity? The word “confidential” seems more appropriate, especially since it connotes the idea of “confidence”. In other words, we, the newspaper, know who the source is and why he or she wants anonymity. We have determined that his or her reasons for anonymity are reasonable; thus, we have granted it. The source has shared this valuable information with the confidence that we, as a responsible news organization, will retain his or her anonymity.

As Ben Bradlee explained in a recent interview with Jim Lehr, “people don't talk to reporters because they love them. They talk to them because they want to talk to them.” Journalists need to do a better job of explaining how and why they use anonymous sources and defend their usage of them. People have a right to remain anonymous when sharing critical information with journalists, and the latter has a right, and at times an obligation, to project those sources.

Douglas McCollam, in his 2005 article in the Columbia Journalism Review titled “The Crowded Theater” explains one reason why anonymous sources have become the scapegoats for all that is wrong in journalism: they create bad public relations. However, he argues, journalists shouldn’t cave to public pressure and avoid anonymous sources to boost public opinion of journalists and their industry: they are sometimes far too important when reporting the truth, and occasionally, they are the only way to discover truth.

Chris Justice is an Assistant Professor of English & Mass Communication at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, United States.

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