Journalists’ use of anonymous sources now an epidemic of deceit

Too many news organizations, despite their own policies, grant anonymity far too often, allowing sources with agendas to escape responsibility for what they say.

Two words in a news story should forewarn you that what you read is unlikely to be The Truth.

… anonymity because …

Those two words appear in sentences like these:

From Al Jazeera: The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

From an AP story: … who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

And, just this morning, from an AP story about captured Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala: The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the Libyan’s whereabouts publicly by name.

Anonymice — what I call sources who will not speak unless journalists allow them to remain nameless (and therefore blameless) — do not and should not inspire trust. The careless use of anonymous sources presents consequences and challenges for journalists and readers and viewers alike. Gratuitous, careless, and amateurish use of anonymice frustrates journalism educators like me, too: It’s a bad habit students often try to imitate.

Granting anonymity should trouble journalists much more than it appears to. After all, the style manual of The New York Times says, “Anonymity is a last resort.” The public editor of The Times has chided the Grey Lady for its too common use of anonymice.

The Associated Press’s online statement of its values and practices decries overuse of anonymice:

[W] always strive to identify all the sources of our information, shielding them with anonymity only when they insist upon it and when they provide vital information – not opinion or speculation; when there is no other way to obtain that information; and when we know the source is knowledgeable and reliable. … We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it’s relevant, we must describe the source’s motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible.

But the AP, I believe, is among the worst offenders in unnecessarily granting anonymity. Notice, too, that the AP’s fiat against anonymice contains wording that obliges it to explain why a source was granted anonymity. In other words, it must follow through on because. In too many cases, such as the examples cited above, the explanation, if provided, fails to tell readers and viewers in sufficient detail why the source was permitted to escape the consequences of being identified. Telling readers and viewers sources were not authorized to speak just isn’t enough. (I wonder, too, how the AP defines “reliable.”)

The practice of attempting to explain the grant of anonymity is a recent development. Eight years ago, in a piece published in The Times, Lew Ayres noted the impact (or the lack of it) of the press’s new policies of explaining grants of anonymity:

In 2004, a bunch of newspapers (including the New York Times) instituted a new policy requiring that articles, when possible, should explain the reasons why the paper granted a source anonymity.

The new policy has created a great empirical opportunity — because in practice the required reason is given after the phrase:

was granted anonymity because … ”.

The impact of the policy was immediate. In 2003 there were only 730 A.P. articles with the phrase, but by 2005 there were 9,451 articles using the phrase.

What follows because is often inadequate, Ayres argues:

But to my mind, the biggest deficiency is the failure of journalists to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate retaliation that might be visited upon an anonymous source.

Other misleading or careless attempts at explaining because are rampant. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post explains why:

Readers noticed, and apparently didn’t like guessing about who was saying what. In 2004, the New York Times surveyed its subscribers on their concerns about the paper. In the wake of flawed (and often anonymously sourced) reporting before the start of the Iraq war, readers said their biggest gripe was the use of anonymous sources, and that it trumped political bias or even delivery problems, according to Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s current public editor.

So, in an attempt at greater transparency, news organizations began explaining why their sources weren’t being identified by name. The idea was to offer readers a little peek under the veil of anonymity.

The practice is now widely employed. A search of the Nexis database turns up thousands of news stories each month in which people speak on “the condition of anonymity” for all kinds of reasons.

Farhi’s piece contains examples of ludicrous “explanations” of the grant of anonymity. Here’s one: A “Democratic operative” who praised a particular union’s organizing ability was granted anonymity “because he did not want to offend other unions.” Really? He didn’t want to face the consequences of pissing someone off? Sources like this need to grow a set, and reporters should require them to.

Are there appropriate uses of anonymous sources? Of course. Watergate comes to mind. So does the need to protect whistleblowers whose jobs or lives might be placed at risk. Sometimes rare circumstances arise when information that would serve the public interest can only be obtained by granting anonymity to a source. But Ayres touches on the heart of the matter — legitimacy. If a source needs anonymity because a threat of serious retaliation against life or livelihood exists, fine. However, if a source demands anonymity because she does not want to face the unpleasant consequences of offending or annoying another person or groups of persons, attach her name. Those fearing merely giving offense usually have another agenda hidden from readers and viewers.

Today, circumstances conspire to press reporters to grant ever more anonymity. Reporters face demands for after-the-fact approval of quotes they intend to use. That happens in the White House. Reporters face the overt or covert threat that access to a source will be denied if anonymity is not granted. Sources will also dictate what the explanation for anonymity will be.

For a reporter, obtaining and retaining access has become paramount in the modern media universe. Because of that, granting anonymity has become the currency of access. Reporters know, too, that knowledgeable sources can bypass the press. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and other means allow sources to push their messages directly into the public consciousness, unedited and uninspected by journalists.

So we now have an epidemic of anonymity because. Care to bet that a significant percentage of those sources were given permission by their superiors to become anonymous? Anonymity begets leaks to the press begets more self-serving, anonymous leaks. Don’t forget: Journalists who hand out anonymity like candy are among the self-serving.

Anonymity is now so common that Slate’s Jack Shafer calls the obsequious granting of it shameful.

Instead of condemning the Times for so recklessly depending on anonymous sources, I’d rather praise them for reminding readers why they should discount anything a shadowy unknown source is allowed to say in a news story. Shielded from public accountability and defended by the journalists who rely on them, anonymous sources pretty much have their way with the New York Times and Washington Post, which tend to rely more heavily on them than other print outlets. In the past four days, the Post cited unnamed sources in at least 18 pieces and the Times did the same in 17 stories ranging from the Iraq civil war to a smartphone app that predicts what a user will type next.

Shafer argues recklessness; I argue fatigue, ambition, and fear of loss of access leading to degraded reporting skills compounded by the downsizing of American newsrooms. About 30,000 daily print reporters now must do what nearly twice that many did only seven years ago. Still, Shafer’s words carry weight regarding the consequences of overuse of anonymice:

Anonymity benefits sources by allowing them to feed their versions almost unimpeded to the press if they locate a gullible or corrupt reporter. Anonymity benefits reporters, too, by potentially increasing their byline counts, by giving them “scoops” (however spurious or short-lived), and by signaling their availability to other anonymous sources.

The downsides of anonymity, of course, are too many to list in a column, but here are two: Anonymous sourcing reduces the pressure on official sources to take responsibility for their utterances. And it promotes the gaming of news outlets, with anonymous sources gravitating to the most pliant reporters and editors. Neither is good for the news.

There’s an old newsroom saying — The amateur imitates; the pro steals. The third word — imitates — troubles journalism profs like me. Journalists on the lower rungs of the news fraternity see the frequent use of anonymous sources by their supposed betters, and they imitate it, unwisely believing that trading access for anonymity is the road to a better job, to a juicier beat, to a higher salary, to more frequent page-one or top-of-the-hour bylines. The clumsy, heavy-handed use of anonymice spreads like a virus. More journalists in more places take an easier route to a story. This ill-thought-out logic applies to students as well. They see the pros doing it wholesale; they assume it’s a customary and legitimate means of advancing a story. That’s a tough tide to teach against.

The 2004 public protest about anonymous sources that led to changes in newsroom policies has not taken hold. Just this week, The Times’ public editor, continuing her AnonyWatch project, chided her own newsroom because stories contain unnamed sources who were, as the online hed of her column proclaimed, “flat wrong.” That, wrote Margaret Sullivan, has consequences:

Editors need to raise the bar for letting [anonymous sources] into stories, and rigorously enforce the existing in-house rules that say that anonymous sources should be used rarely and only as a last resort.

When sources are nameless, they are also unaccountable. There is no price for them to pay when they get it wrong. But readers — and The Times’s credibility — do suffer. And in some cases, so do the reputations of those The Times is writing about. No “walk-back story” can fix any of that.

So what should readers and viewers do when they see or hear anonymity because and not authorized in a story?

Exercise skepticism. Be your own journalist. Ask the age-old question: Cui bono? Who benefits? And ask more questions. What is agenda of the source? Why won’t the reporter explain to your satisfaction why anonymity was granted? Was anonymity the price for getting the story? Who demanded that price? Then:

Put the link to the story on Twitter or Facebook or another social medium of your choice. Direct this question to the newspaper, broadcast, or online entity by name: Why did you grant anonymity? Do it every time you see or hear a story with anonymice that raises your skeptical hackles. Demand an answer.

Journalism organizations have policies that generally say anonymity is a “last resort” reporting tool. But readers and viewers aren’t idiots: They see anonymity being granted with impunity. So these “last resort” policies serve only to cover the assess of news operations.

Readers and viewers ought to demand better, because they need better information on who’s responsible for the information given them by journalists. Sullivan’s right: News organizations should rigorously uphold their own policies on anonymity. If they don’t, as Shafer argued, shame on them.

15 replies »

  1. Things have changed since I was getting my journalism BA in the ’80s, and not for the better. And in this piece you touch on a HUGE reason why the craft and credibility of American journalism have declined.

  2. I ask this as a non-journo with only vague memories of seeing this on the teevee…didn’t a reporter who had an anonymous source used to take the bit of information they got and pound lots of pavement to find corroborating evidence to support the claim such that they could arrive at it independently as far as the readers were concerned? Or was that just because it was on the tube? Halcyon days!

    • That’s what’s taught in my journalism program, Frank. It used to be SOP. But I think that with the daily press workforce nearly halved but the same output expected, reporters feel pressed to run with what they’ve got.

  3. I have said this before, in part because my views on journalism are heavily influenced by having read “Roughing It,” but isn’t journalism as a profession with standards a historical aberation? Didn’t that idea gain favor with Murrow and pretty much end just after the Viet Nam War? (If I remember, the idea of code for journalism and schools did start before that, but Murrow made it popular.) However journalists may see themselves, the truth is the City Bureau has closed down.

    Journalism has always been sort of profession-of-last-resort for the innumerate. I’ll never forget a NY Times journalist telling me that when he took his aptitude test in high school the counselor told him he was so bad at math, science, etc that his only recourse was to go to journalism school. For every great journalist, there are twenty not great ones. Journalism just doesn’t attract people capable of finding the truth or pay enough to convince them to do so.

    I know a LOT of journalists, including some very good ones, and while they all think they try to live up to the standards, in truth they have a mortgage and kids and need to be at the Little League game no later than six and that shapes what they say and how they do their jobs. Letting them off the hook by saying “work has doubled” is convenient, but perhaps not entirely accurate.

    • Wait. “Journalism has always been sort of profession-of-last-resort for the innumerate.” You seem to be arguing that math is the only standard for legitimacy, either with people or professions.

      And: “Letting them off the hook by saying “work has doubled” is convenient, but perhaps not entirely accurate.” Denny has been cataloguing the dramatic decline of reporting staffs for years, as well as detailing the impact this has on actual news coverage. Seriously, dozens and dozens of deep analyses, beginning when we opened the doors in 2007 (actually, before that – he was doing it in our 5th Estate days). I get that a lot of this happened before you discovered S&R, but there’s a substantial context you’re missing.

      But let’s do this. If you don’t like the “work has doubled” frame, how would you put it when they fire half the newsroom (with a heavy focus on the more experienced, and hence more expensive, reporters and editors)?

  4. Hi, O. I agree with much of what you say. Yes, it is convenient to offer the “work has doubled” excuse of less-than-stellar performance. What additionally shapes that critique is this: Since the Great Layoff Surge that began in 2007 in earnest, those laid off first were the most experienced — because they were the most expensive. So the formula — “for every great journalist, there are twenty not great ones” — is more like this: For every great journalist, there are now only forty great ones.”

    Innumeracy among journalists is overstated. I think it was once true, but it is impossible for a journalist to perform at a high level without a fundamental grasp of quantitative reasoning. I’ve spent 20 years as a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and there’s a group of journalists that has a good handle on both quantitative and scientific literacy. It’s also impossible to do a good job covering finance, business, and international commerce without understanding both the language and the math of those beats.

    Like any profession, journalism has its strengths and its flaws, as do its practitioners. But I think that fewer and fewer readers and viewers fully understand that right now journalism could use an infusion of energy and talent. The stakes are too high to have a work force that acquires, vets, and distributes information not performing as well as it possibly can. For me, that means the companies and corporations that employ them ought to invest more in training and retaining first-rate journalists. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    Cheers …

  5. I’d add this note only because I don’t see it mentioned (or blathered about, given my proclivities): part of what is driving the very problems that Denny details here is political – the corporations who have swallowed up local news and in doing so have given us “infotainment” and other abominations, have a political agenda that they are pursuing and that political agenda entails compromising journalism to the point of returning it to its completely partisan roots. The problem with that, of course, is that for many Boomers and Xers who grew up under the “objective” reporting rubric (keep your shirt on Sam, I have a point) have been, by and large, suckered into buying into nonsense such as the cynical and completely partisan reporting of a Fox News. Remember that motto – “We report; you decide”? If FN were adhering to any ethical standard, their motto would be, “We manipulate; you are manipulated.”

    The other note I’ll add is related to Otherwise’s cheap shot at journalism being the last refuge of the innumerate. That reporter you mentioned named Twain popularized the following statement: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Since we know that numbers are regularly massaged to suit political purposes, perhaps the sort of qualitative research that journalists are able to do – if they’re not being manipulated by politicized corporate policies aimed at making the truth (that is phronesis, or real cultural truth, often masked in bullshit numbers such as statistics) – has a cultural value in protecting us from those who would lie to us for their own gain. So Denny’s argument for validating what “anonymous” (read cowardly/manipulative/both) sources offer is vitally important to what journalism’s stated aim was under men like the great Murrow: the pursuit of truth beyond the Big Lie….

  6. I dont think I said all journalists are innumerate (or all innumerate people are journalists.) It’s one of those professions (like marketing, like education, etc,) that are havens for people who don’t want to deal with numbers. I’ve made my living in marketing and I’m about as numerate as you get. But a lot of the folks around me aren’t and went into marketing because it was comparatively easy for them because they only had to take one math class and biology instead of chemistry or physics.

    I could make the same argument about engineering and math being refuges for the illiterate or med schools being a refuge for those with large memories and small processors. And I would. I once had a partner in my consulting firm who was a math Phd who literally could not write a sentence. No exageration. His reports were all graphics because he couldn’t write a header. And if you notice, a stunning number of intolerant assholes with naive Neanderthal politics have MD along side their names.

    I will also point out, and have, that the best and most popular book I ever wrote was written with a journalist (the same one I cited earlier.) I quickly learned working with him that journalists have skills I didn’t even know existed.

    However, you guys can squeal all you like but you know and I know that a lot of the kids in journo programs are weak in analytics and critical thinking, and that journalism is seen as a easy major relative to many. The result is there’s a flood of the marginally competent into it and out of it, always willing to take the jobs of the experienced and competent, to Denny’s point.

    Of course there are some smart, bright journalists, just like there are some smart, bright, hard-working underpaid teachers, but unless I say ALL, the innocent need not take offense.

    And Sam, thanks. It’s helpful for you to date the beginning of intelligent discourse so precisely, i.e., the date S&R was founded, and to identify the exact point at which I stopped drooling, stood on my hind legs and began thinking about issues like this, but in this case my thinking and observations go back a little further than that.

    • Oh stop it.

      Honestly, while much of what you’re saying is on the money, the point where you’re REALLY hitting home has to do with the J school education. Denny has been hearing this from me since 2004 or so, I think, but were it up to me we’d kill all undergrad professional programs, and we’d start with J and Business. Effective journalism does require a lot on the critical thinking front, and I have also, from time to time, gone after just how weak the typical reporter these days is at parsing not just numbers, but any kind of research claim at all. I see more horrific “reporting” on the findings of research than I can stand.

      Meanwhile, a lot of us who never took a J class got pretty darned good at these things during the course of your basic liberal arts curriculum. Denny himself was not a J major. He was a geologist.

      You may also be right about the quality of applicants to J programs. There are others who could speak in more detail than I can. But I imagine that the average SAT of a J program applicant falls well short of the same scores by kids in many other programs.

      And I also remind folks of the time, back in the late ’90s, after my assistantship ran out. I had, to that point, taught in U of Colorado’s J program – everything from intro to upper division mass media and culture stuff. Then I wound up over in the Humanities department teaching a two-semester sequence in Humanities and Electronic Media – cyberculture, basically.

      You know all the jokes about Humanities majors and would you like fries with that, I’m sure. But my Humanities kids were so much brighter than the J students I’d been teaching it was scary. It was like going from community college to Harvard. There was simply no standard by which you’d measure a prospective journalist that they weren’t markedly superior in.

      All of which is to say that while I’m not sure about how you framed pieces of your original argument, you’re dead on about a lot here.

      Now, all that said, there remains the institutional problem that the folks who are in journalism right now face, and that’s the stuff Denny has been screaming about all this time. It’s probably safe to say that whether a journalist is one of the good ones or one of the bad ones, the current environment is going to make it far harder to do the best possible job.

      And Jim is right about the corporate agendas that have driven some of these moves. It’s hardly radical to observe that the powerful and corrupt benefit by any measure that undercuts scrutiny and critical thinking in the public sphere.

      • more seriously, i note that when you say it, it’s ok, but when i say it, it’s not? that’s part of what drives me crazy about academe and those with phd’s, the idea that you need credentials to make a point. just because i’m not a journalist doesnt make me wrong. i might be wrong, admittedly, but that’s not prima facie proof that i am.

        • Ummm. The initial reaction was to an overly broad characterization. Dialed in you had a good point. Credentials got nothing to do with it.

  7. Not that it’s forgotten, but for emphasis, let’s not forget editorial by omission. I’m not sure what the J lingo is for that, but I’d be surprised if there isn’t a term for it. We focus so much on what we hear, and how it’s been mangled. The news we don’t hear, the news that would keep the rest in context, is every bit as important.

    Could anyone in the know address if and how decisions are made to simply not cover stories? Civilian casualties in Iraq, for instance, or 260,000 dead of famine in Somalia, or number dead from malpractice and over-prescription. Or maybe some of Jim’s prime environmental concerns in North Carolina. The list is endless, I’m sure, which makes the absence of these stories all the more telling.

    Not that it matters in the big scheme, but hell, I only just learned of Seattle’s “crowpocalypse” the other day…50 areas in Seattle that have been mapped out showing recurring crow attacks (Sam, watch your back, and head, and eyes).