perspective

Journalism 101 with Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist

If there’s anything in journalism that baffles and sometimes infuriates readers, it’s the reporting on information that comes from people who aren’t named in the story — also known as anonymous sources.

Cover photo: Melina Mara/The Post, Eric Hanson for The Post

Without names attached, readers aren’t sure how credible the information is or what the agenda of the source might be. And yet some of the best journalism relies on that kind of sourcing because the information is so sensitive that people, if named, might lose their jobs or reputations. And there’s a lot of confusion about who these shadowy sources are — and who knows their identity.

I talked with a few journalists about anonymous sources and other journalistic mysteries they wish readers understood. Here’s what I learned.

On anonymous sources

“A lot of people seem to think that when we use anonymous sources, we don’t even know who they are — that they’re anonymous to us.”

National reporter Wesley Lowery, The Washington Post

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

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On editorial boards

“The separation between news and opinion departments is something that’s hard for readers to believe... I want to keep that distinction clear. I want to be able to say, with credibility, that we in news don’t have any influence on the paper’s editorials.”

Nancy Barnes, Houston Chronicle executive editor

Dawn Villella/AP

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On source motivations

“I have always wished the public understood how complex and messy sourcing is, and how often sources’ motives are personal or complex.”

Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed

Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The Guardian

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On fact-checking

“I don’t think people widely understand how hard journalists work to get stories right... Accuracy is the first requirement journalists have of each other... Corrections (and even uncorrected mistakes) are badges of dishonor.”

Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica

Courtesy of Richard Tofel

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There used to be a time when news organizations didn’t feel the need to explain their practices and beliefs to their audiences.

There was a sense of “just trust us” or “you don’t want to see how the sausage is made.”

That’s changing now, and we will benefit our readers and viewers most when we’re more transparent about what we do, and how we do it.