By Lena Williams
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, made a surprising admission last October: The Times – and the media in general – “don’t do a good enough job” of explaining to the public how and why they use anonymous sources.
For far too long, the use of anonymous sources has engendered doubt among readers who don’t know why reporters use unnamed sources. As a result, they’re skeptical of stories that cite them.
Readers’ distrust, coupled with President Trump’s repeated charges of “fake news,” have forced news organizations to be more transparent, Baquet said at a talk on The Press and Trump’s Washington.
“We try not to use anonymous sources,” he said. “On the biggest stories, like the Harvey Weinstein story, I have to know myself about them.
“When we do more routine stories about the White House, senior editors have to know the names of the sources and the circumstances. We test it. We know who they are and they have to have a specific knowledge of stuff.”
Baquet said The Times has a “protocol that’s pretty tough because we can’t afford to get it wrong.”
That toughness grew out of experience.
In 2004, The Times surveyed subscribers about their concerns about the paper. In the wake of flawed reporting on the Iraq War that was often based on anonymous sources, readers said unnamed sources was their biggest gripe, trumping political bias and delivery problems.
In an attempt to be more transparent, The Times and other news organizations began explaining why sources weren’t being identified.
The Times now gives information about the sources, such as “sources inside the White House,” “someone with knowledge of situation,” or “a person who attended the meeting.”
The Washington Post has also begun explaining much more about its sources – and the methods its reporters use. It’s coverage of the allegations against former Judge Roy Moore was notable for explaining why it included as sources families and friends of victims who told them about abuse contemporaneously.
The Post also took pains to explain how it handled the attempted sting by James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, who the paper alleged tried to get journalists to report fake allegations.
Last June, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein issued a statement urging Americans to question anonymously sourced news stories.
“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous officials, particularly when they do not identify the country – let alone the branch or agency of government – with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated,” Rosenstein said.
“Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long-established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations.”
Trump derides leaks that are attributed to anonymous sources and what he perceives as the media’s growing use of unnamed sources.
“He has a point,” a neighbor once told me. “I don’t like it when people come to me and say, ‘such and such said this about you,’ but they don’t want to tell me who said it,” she said. “Lives have been ruined by false accusations from people who aren’t brave enough to say things to your face.”
My neighbor is a card-carrying Democrat, believes President Trump is bad for the country, and has The Washington Post delivered to her doorstep every day. She describes herself as a “proud, God-fearing American.”
But it’s people like her that Trump is speaking to when he routinely dismisses news reports based on unnamed sources as “fake news.”
Trump wants the American public to believe that real news only comes from those willing put their names to their statements, those who are willing to stake their livelihoods and reputations on information they provide to the media.
His tweets speak for themselves: “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names…it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!” Trump tweeted on May 28, 2017.
Never mind that the president doesn’t seem to be bothered by the use of anonymous sources when they’re favorable to his point of view.
On May 30, 2017, Trump retweeted a Fox News story about his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, that said: “Jared Kushner didn’t suggest Russian communications channel in meeting, source says.”
Two months later, on Aug. 8, 2017, the president retweeted another Fox News story about U.S. spy satellites detecting North Korean missile movements based on anonymous sources discussing leaked classified information.
For years, journalists have relied on anonymous sources to provide information that might not otherwise be available to the public because the information is classified, or might compromise an ongoing investigation, or poses a threat to the source or others.
“Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens,” notes the Society of Professional Journalists.
Some of the biggest news stories in American history were the result of anonymous sources: Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” the Pentagon Papers’ Daniel Ellsberg, and Frank Serpico, the whistle-blower police officer whose exposed corruption in the New York City police department in the 1970s.
But politicians, law enforcement officials, journalists and ordinary people have expressed concern about whether people are hiding behind confidentiality to ruin reputations and careers. They’re also worried about whether journalists may be susceptible to sources with personal vendettas and private agendas.
Journalists have an ethical responsibility to protect the identity of sources they have promised to keep confidential. However, courts often try to compel reporters to reveal that information and journalists who refused have faced imprisonment.
But if readers, listeners and viewers don’t have faith that the news they are consuming is accurate and fair or if they suspect information attributed to an anonymous source has been made up, then journalists are failing to do their jobs.
In the interest of transparency, reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources. If the only way to publish a story that is of importance to the audience is to use anonymous sources, the reporter owes it to the readers to identify the source as clearly as possible without pointing a finger at the individual who has been granted anonymity.
Journalists must also be more forthcoming about the jobs they do in reporting the news. They owe that to the public. The more the public knows about when, how and why reporters use anonymous sources, the more likely they are to give credence to the information provided.