Unnamed sources? Journalists should teach readers why they were used

On Thursday, four journalists for CNN reported:

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

CATEGORY: JournalismInformation. Indicates. Associates. Communicated. Suspected. Operatives. Possibly. Coordinate. Information. US officials.

Huh? Could this lede be any more vague? This lede is all may have — which leaves open the possibility of may not have.

The story, reported by Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, and Shimon Prokupecz, contains unnamed sources in 10 of the story’s 18 paragraphs. The FBI director is named, but only in reference to stories reported earlier. White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov are named, but only in chiding the findings of the story. Two paragraphs near the end of the story contain no sources and appear to be the conclusions of the reporters.

National-security and law-enforcement reporting is among the most difficult for news organizations. Such reporting relies heavily on lengthy professional experience that produces useful access to agency sources. Trust has be to built between the journalists and the agencies under review. That takes time.

So why don’t such stories teach readers and viewers that?

Where is the paragraph that explains to readers why this story is built on factual quicksand? In the era of journalists being declared “enemies of the American people,” how stories have been constructed can be as important as the story itself. Simply putting together a story quoting “sources” and leaving credibility dependent only on the experience, standards, and reputations of the news organization and its journalists is insufficient.

Check the bios: Three of these journalists have considerable experience in reporting in the national security arena. But why couldn’t a paragraph of explanation be included to teach readers and viewers how the story was reported and under what constraints the journalists operated? For example:

CNN used unnamed sources for this story because many, if not most, law-enforcement, Justice Department, and national-security organizations have policies forbidding their officials to speak on the record. In this case, none of the officials would allow their names or titles to be used. They agreed to speak with CNN only on that condition. CNN granted anonymity because no other means were available to obtain the information for this story. CNN understands, as should readers and viewers, that unnamed officials may have unrevealed reasons for sharing information.

Perhaps someday, such a story might have a lede like this:

The FBI said today senior officials of President Donald Trump’s administration and his campaign apparatus spoke with Russian agents to coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, [a real name and title] told CNN.

But that’s not the real world of national-security and law-enforcement reporting. Journalists should explain what it’s really like, and perhaps readers and viewers would be more willing to grant some slack to stories built on anonymous sources.

4 replies »

  1. On the print edition, adding all of that would take up too much ink. But I could see “An explanation for why anonymous sources are used in this reporting.”

    Although almost all decent articles in the political realm say something like “Many of the unnamed sources in this article asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to discuss these matters.”

  2. At a minimum. With respect to CI’s. I think these reporters should appear before a grand jury and acknowledge which sentences they contributed and confirm if their only role in the creation of content was having been listed as coauthors. If there is fake news then the only way to sort it out is force the author under oath that they did in fact have unnamed sources. And journalists with integrity will not lend their name to fake news to throw off the sent of neo-yellow journalism.