Anonymous sources are increasing in news stories, along with rather curious explanations


Some of the nation’s largest papers are depending more on sources who wish to remain anonymous. (Clockwise, from left: Alex Wong/Getty Images; Joel Boh/Reuters; Darren McCollester/Getty Images; David McNew/Getty Images)
December 15, 2013

According to sources who didn’t insist on anonymity, more and more sources are speaking to the news media on the condition of anonymity for the oddest of reasons.

Politico, for example, reported a speech by Vice President Biden to a progressive group based on the account of a person who spoke anonymously “because the [speech was] by-invitation only.”

The New York Times said one of its sources for an article about Syria asked not to be identified “because of the delicacy of the situation.” The Times accorded anonymity to sources for the same reason — “because of the delicacy of the situation” — in six other articles this year, including one about a woman who fell off a balcony.

The Washington Post, in an article Saturday about the Redskins’ troubles, cited such mysterious sources as “several people familiar with the situation”; “multiple people close to the matter”; “several people with knowledge of the deliberations”; and “one person with ties to the team.” The sources, according to the article, spoke anonymously “because of the sensitivity of the situation.”

Question: Does this help much?

It used to be that anonymous sources — Watergate’s “Deep Throat” was the most famous — spoke on the condition of anonymity because . . . well, because they wouldn’t speak to reporters any other way. Back then, anonymous sources were just “sources” and you, dear reader, had to take our word for whoever they were and whatever we said they said.

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 currentpublic 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. Or would-be reasons:

■The Boston Globe quoted a “Democratic operative” who praised the organizing abilities of a local labor union without being identified by name “because he did not want to offend other unions.”

●The Post wrote about a dinner meeting in Richmond between Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D), citing people who spoke anonymously “in order to discuss a private event.”

■The Los Angeles Times reported on a business deal, citing a person “familiar” with the companies involved who was quoted without being named in order “to preserve a relationship with both companies.”

“Frankly, this kind of sourcing is ridiculous,” says Alicia Shepard, a journalist and NPR’s former ombudsman. She adds: “I get it that [news organizations] are trying to be transparent, but it doesn’t enhance the believability of the anonymous quote. The only thing worthwhile about the convoluted sourcing explainers is how funny they are.”

In fact, such descriptions can do more harm than good, says Matt Carlson, an associate professor at St. Louis University and the author of “On Condition of Anonymity: Unnamed Sources and the Battle for Journalism,” published in 2011. Rather than enhancing a reader’s understanding, the descriptions used by reporters can be disingenuous and misleading about a source’s affiliation or motives, Carlson says.

He cites the classic misdirection case: Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller once agreed to identify one of her anonymous sources, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, not as a senior White House official but as “a former congressional staffer,” a technically accurate but wholly misleading description.

Some sources have important reasons for not putting their names next to their words, says Kevin Z. Smith, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee. Whistleblowers can lose their jobs if unmasked, he notes, and those in dangerous areas face worse. A recent Los Angeles Times story, for instance, quoted a resident of a gang-infested Southern California neighborhood who did not want to be identified “for fear of retaliation.”

But many journalists resort to boilerplate formulations to describe their anonymous sourcing, Smith says. Among the typical constructions: saying a person wasn’t “authorized” to speak on the record, or was granted anonymity because the news hasn’t been “formally announced yet.” Says Smith: “We just seem to take any excuse [sources] toss out. . . . It’s awarded summarily for just about any reason.”

One common bit of journalistic shorthand might be unintentionally revealing. The New York Times recently quoted a movie-studio executive who commented on another studio without being identified so “he could speak candidly.” Which raises another question: If anonymous sources are the ones speaking candidly, what are named sources doing?

That suggests the obvious benefit of anonymous sourcing: It often elicits more, and more truthful, information than the on-the-record kind.

Smith, Carlson and Shepard agree that reporters should nudge more of their sources onto the record or work harder to find other sources who are willing to put their names next to the same information. If they can’t do either, they say, reporters should more accurately and fully describe why people won’t give their names (TV journalists use anonymous sources, too, but the practice is far more widespread in print and digital reporting, which doesn’t require the visual elements of TV news).

“The fact is that many companies, government agencies, and institutions of every type do their best to make sure people with knowledge won’t speak publicly,” says Martin Baron, The Washington Post’s executive editor. “They apply pressure and, at worst, fire people. At other times, people who speak openly can suffer recrimination. Or they are bound by policies that prohibit use of their name. As unpleasant as anonymity may be, very often the alternative is no information whatsoever. Reporters are encouraged to negotiate to identify people as much as possible and to provide honest reasons for their anonymity. But there can be practical limits on what we can say.”

Indeed, some have said that journalism would be permanently disabled without shielding sources, particularly in Washington, where reporters employ a coded lexicon (“senior White House official,” “congressional staffer,” etc.) to signal the heft, motives and authority for their otherwise unidentified informants.

Back in its pre-“Deep Throat” days, The Post tried an experiment. Faced with the Nixon administration’s manipulative use of off-the-record sourcing, then-executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee announced a no-more-unnamed-sources policy, banning any story based on one, according to Ben Bagdikian, at the time an assistant managing editor at the paper.

As a result, Bagdikian wrote, “The Post’s competitors, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, published important news stories that The Post did not have. The paper’s readers were deprived of significant information. For a fierce competitor like Bradlee, that was intolerable.”

And so the experiment was dropped — after two days.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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