Message from Keith
Should journalists rely on anonymous sources?
There has been much recent talk among media analysts, critics and journalism educators about reporters overusing anonymous sources. This is often cited as one of the many factors leading to a decline in public trust of the news media.
Some critics say the persistent use of anonymous sources allows journalists to push their own opinions in the guise of unnamed “experts”. Other complain that anonymous sources might have their own motivations, and are using reporters to further hidden agendas. Many even question whether anonymous sources exist at all.
But anonymous sources are also the lifeblood of journalism. We rely on leakers, whistleblowers, informants and tipsters to alert us to stories of corruption, malfeasance, human rights abuses and illegal behaviour that journalists—and the public—might otherwise never know about.
Two huge recent examples come immediately to mind. The impeachment probe of U.S. President Donald Trump for trying to strong-arm the Ukrainian president into helping Trump’s re-election campaign was sparked by an anonymous whistleblower. His identity is still Washington’s best kept secret, and it reminds us that some of the biggest U.S. government scandals, from Watergate to National Security Agency surveillance, came from insiders who were initially anonymous.
And more recently, The New York Times was the recipient of more than 400 pages of leaked, top secret Chinese government documents that revealed how Communist Party ruler Xi Jinping laid the groundwork for the brutal crackdown in Xinjiang province, including the detention of a million Muslim Uighurs in de facto concentration camps. It was the biggest leak of Chinese secret documents in decades, and suggests fissures at the top level of the Communist Party leadership.
Clearly anonymous sources play a vital role in helping journalists expose the truth.
What we try to teach students at JMSC is that full names and identities should be used in stories whenever possible. But we recognise that is not always possible. Sources have many reasons for wanting their identity kept secret—most often fear of reprisal, particularly in an authoritarian country like China.
We tell students to ask themselves a series of questions before agreeing to give anonymity to a source, or before deciding to use anonymously sourced information. Does the source have a legitimate reason for remaining secret? Is this source giving vital, first-hand information on a topic of public interest? Can the information be obtained by any other means? Can the source offer any documentation or proof of their claims?
Another key is for young journalists to treat anonymous sources or their tips as a roadmap for more investigation. Rather than dismissing an anonymous tip as unreliable—whether it comes in an unsigned letter, an email or a whispered phone call—reporters should do something now considered old-fashioned in this age of opinion journalism; put on some comfortable walking shoes, go out and do some real reporting and try to verify it.
That was a lesson I learned in 1985 as a young journalist fresh out of graduate school and newly assigned to the national desk of The Washington Post. I got a small scoop that the new chairwoman of a federal regulatory agency dealing with royalties and copyrights had a secret in her not-too-distant past; she had cowritten a book which said African-Americans “insist on preserving their jungle freedoms, their women, their avoidance of personal responsibility and their abhorrence of the work ethic”. The book contained other overtly racist notions.
The story sparked a mini-Washington scandal, and led the official, Marianne Mele Hall, to resign from the position. I worked hard to nail down the scoop, finding a copy of the obscure book at the Library of Congress, reading through it, and confirming that Hall was indeed the co-author. I received congratulatory backslaps and kudos from the Post’s top editors for the scoop.
And the tip had first come to me through an anonymous letter. I never knew the writer’s identity.
Director of the JMSC