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CNN’s Russia story retraction and the danger of relying on one anonymous source

Corporate logo on the headquarters of CNN in Atlanta. (iStock)

Just a day after publishing an exclusive story, CNN found itself in a position no news organization wants to be in.

It reported last Thursday that the Senate Intelligence Committee was investigating a Russian investment fund whose head met with an official of President Trump’s transition team four days before the inauguration.

The story, which relied on one unnamed source, prompted questions about its validity, including from the transition team official, Anthony Scaramucci, who said on Twitter that he had done nothing wrong.

CNN issued a retraction late Friday night, saying the story “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted.” By Monday, three journalists involved in the story, the reporter and two editors, had resigned, The Washington Post reported.

The retraction, which comes at a time of unprecedented anonymous leaks and significant public distrust of the media, renews questions about the use of confidential informants.

Three CNN employees resign over retracted story on Russia ties

The Post spoke with Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chair of the Society of Professional Journalists and a health reporter for Reuters, about anonymous sources, specifically the practice of relying on just one in stories that try to expose wrongdoing by government officials. He discusses when a single anonymous source is acceptable and when it’s not, what questions journalists should ask before granting anonymity, and how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein needed more than just Deep Throat.

President Trump has repeatedly railed against leaks, calling them "criminal" acts. But The Post's Margaret Sullivan argues that anonymous sources are necessary to bring truth to the public. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

What are the ground rules when it comes to using anonymous sources?

Journalists are supposed to consider the sources’ motives before promising anonymity. It should be reserved for people who are going to face danger or harm, and also for people who possess information that can’t be obtained anywhere else. Make sure the person isn’t requesting anonymity for some ridiculous reasons, like being embarrassed about being quoted in the media. And the information should be vital to the public and something you can’t get anywhere else. Journalists should explain why anonymity is granted.

What are the questions that journalists should ask their sources before promising anonymity in exchange for information?

It really needs to be spelled out what the anonymity is between the two people. It’s basically like a contract that you’re deciding. If their anonymous source decides to make themselves public, does that mean the journalists could confirm that? Or should they continue denying that? Those are some of the intricacies that should be worked out before anonymity is granted. But journalists should push their sources to go on the record.

You don’t want to necessarily just go off what one person is saying. Even going back to Watergate, the story written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it wasn’t just Deep Throat in the parking garage. There were other people they were talking to.

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When can journalists use just one anonymous source?

I think it has to be in really extreme situations where that information wouldn’t really be known by anyone else, and that information is vital and the source is credible. The journalist should sort of build an insurance policy. If this proves not to be correct, I’m going to have to explain my sources. [Journalists should say to their sources,] “Listen, I’m willing to put a lot on the line with this information. I need to have some guarantee that this is correct.”

In general, that should be in the most extreme situation and should rarely ever come up. Most credible newsrooms would pass for something like that.

What problems are journalists likely to face if they publish a story based on information from one anonymous source and it falls apart?

Obviously, the information could be bad, or you may need to retract that story because you have no other evidence to back up that information. [In CNN’s case], it doesn’t seem like CNN is saying the story is wrong. It just didn’t go through the proper editorial process. That could be especially troubling, especially in today’s environment. The president today, if you look at his Twitter account, he’s there on a roll. Unlike in the 1970s, 1980s, journalists don’t have the credibility they used to with the public. It’s easier for people to knock down those stories. And the public usually doesn’t understand what anonymous sources are. The public basically believes that anonymous sources are also anonymous to the journalists.

Overall, the stories are usually less effective when there’s one anonymous source, or when it mainly relies on one anonymous source. The public doesn’t understand the term, and you have the president of the United States who say that’s all fake news, and the public doesn’t understand that.

When you have failures like this and you have some place like CNN who retracts a story, it looks bad for everyone who use anonymous sources.

Trump renews attack on ‘Fake News CNN’ after retraction

[The Post has frequently relied on anonymous sources in reporting some of its biggest stories about Trump, his campaign and Russia. According to The Post’s policy: “We prefer at least two sources of factual information in Post stories that depend on confidential informants, and those sources should be independent of each other. We prefer sources with firsthand or direct knowledge of the information. A relevant document can sometimes serve as a second source." Publishing a story that has only one confidential source should happen only after deliberations with the executive and managing editors. In this Reddit thread, national security reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous explain their use of anonymous sources.]

Why are stories with one anonymous source more likely to be retracted than others?

I don’t know if they’re more likely to be retracted … It’s very easy for a person to come out and say, “Who are they? If you can’t show me this person and show me their work, why should I believe it?” … It’s sort of like a high-wired act. You want to construct the best setup to ensure your safety. You want to verify it through other means. You want to see a document. You want to talk to others who can verify. If it turns out to be bad information, you have nothing else left to support you.

Anything else to add?

What’s important for people to know is just because a news organization screws up or makes a misstep doesn’t mean that they’re fake news, or everything that they put out is incorrect. Every news organization will make a mistake. I think what’s important is to look at an organization’s collective body of work. This doesn’t necessarily erase all that.

Erik Wemple contributed to this story.


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