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.