How to handle anonymous sources is among the most thorny issues for journalists. When news organizations use them, they put their own credibility and the credibility of their publication on the line. There’s nobody they can point to and hold responsible for an error, except themselves. The use of anonymous sources can raise questions in the public’s mind about the reliability of a news organization, and damage reader trust. On the other hand, there is some information — such as insight from government whistleblowers or statements from crime victims while a violent suspect is still at large — that can’t be published without a news organization granting anonymity.
At Civil Beat, we believe that anonymous sources are sometimes necessary when they’re the only way we can share important information. We only use them, though, when we believe the public benefit clearly outweighs any potential downsides. Anonymous sources must be used carefully. The decision is in our sole judgment. To retain your trust, we believe we must explain why we granted anonymity. It’s not enough for us that somebody might ask for anonymity.
It’s important to state: We always try to obtain information on the record. But there may be cases where that’s impossible, and yet we believe we have information that is essential for the public to know. In such cases, before considering granting anonymity, we must know that the source or sources are reliable and that they have direct knowledge of the subject. We always try to confirm information by seeking multiple sources. We decide to grant anonymity because we believe the person has a justifiable reason not to speak on the record.
Here are our guidelines:
- Responsibility for anonymous sourcing begins with the reporter. When a reporter believes the use of an unnamed source is essential to the story, this must be discussed with the editor or assistant editor in the process of writing the story. Reporters are obligated to disclose the identity of an anonymous source to the editor, or the assistant editor in the editor’s absence. The reporter should be prepared to offer a rationale why there is a compelling reason to include an unnamed source in the story.
- Reporters who agree to use an anonymous source are bound to protect the identity of the source. Editors who know the identity of the source will be bound to the same standards of confidentiality as the reporter.
- We use anonymous sources only for substantive, factual information; not for opinion, personal criticism or incidental information. Sources need to have direct knowledge of the subject involved.
- An unnamed source should be identified as completely as possible. For example “An aide to the governor…” is preferable to “A knowledgeable government official…”
- We explain why we granted anonymity. For example: “Civil Beat granted anonymity to the source who leaked news of layoffs at City Hall because we knew the person had direct knowledge of the facts, but that the person’s job would be in jeopardy if it were known that the person had spoken to the press.”
- We do not use pseudonyms in any story.
- We do not publish inaccurate information to try to obscure the identity of a source. For example, we do not say a source refused to comment when, in fact, the person has commented off the record.
- We are precise in the number of sources we use for anonymous information. There may be cases where a single individual is adequate. If a public figure, such as a university president, confirms to us that she is going to resign in five hours, for example, we would say “source.” We never imply that we have more than one source, if all we have is one source.
- Integrity and trust are essential in applying these guidelines. Commitments of secrecy to sources should be honored. Reporters may have to grant anonymity in the field, but they should explain that they will have to discuss the sourcing with an editor who may not allow publication under those terms.