Anonymous sources are among the thorniest issues in journalism. Whether to use them? How to use them? What they do to the public’s perception of the credibility of news organizations? They’re a constant topic of conversation in journalism circles.

The Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in 2010 featured the issue in a “showcase” panel, titled “Walking the Tightrope: The Risks and Rewards of Anonymous Sources.” According to an account by Roy J. Harris Jr. on the website of the Poynter Institute, a leading journalism think tank and training organization, the session was packed. Two of the scheduled panelists begged off, he wrote. One, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, possibly because he was being sought in a federal investigation of leaked documents, Harris said. The other, New York Times reporter James Risen, because he had received legal counsel that he shouldn’t appear at a time when the government was seeking information about confidential sources, including in his book “State of War.”

You see what I mean about thorny?

We decided at Civil Beat that the best approach, given our commitment to transparency, would be to publish our policy on anonymous sources and link to it whenever we use them. So today, because we have an article on the site that does include an anonymous source, we’re publishing a topic page on the issue and linking to it from the article.

Here, I’d just like to outline a few key points about our approach.

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.

I hope this helps you understand our approach. Of course I’d be happy to answer questions about it.

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