Psst, let me tell you a little secret about journalism: Anonymous sources rarely are used for your benefit.

Most often, they are a way for the source to wangle political cover for public sniping. While sometimes that aligns with civic interests, most of the time it is a sequoia-sized indicator of sloppy journalism, through which both the journalist and the public are being manipulated.

There are exceptions, of course, for crime victims, kids and whistleblowers. Think about arguably the most famous use of an anonymous source in journalism’s history: Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal. When FBI agent Mark Felt revealed his identity in Vanity Fair a few years ago, journalism historians finally could connect the behind-the-scenes network that guided Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through their stories that toppled President Richard Nixon.

What has been lost in the lore about Deep Throat, though, is that his contributions primarily were “deep background” guidance and encouragement, as Bernstein noted, and that Felt mostly just confirmed information gathered from other sources.

Anonymous sources

The use of anonymity often lets sources manipulate reporters.

Flicker.com/AJ Cann

Three decades later, anonymous sources have mutated and proliferated like noxious weeds, and have become primary sources throughout our news, nationally and locally.

You should care, because that increasing reliance on anonymity strips you of your opportunity, as an engaged reader/viewer, to assess the source as believable or not.

Critically, it prevents you from examining the motivations that source might have for sharing and shaping the released information.

When the source is anonymous, you have to blindly accept that this person is a benevolent contributor to democratic discourse, acting for the public good. Generally, that is a risky assumption.

Let’s look at a recent national example.

“People Familiar With …”

A few weeks ago, The Washington Post floated the idea that the Obama administration was vetting Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval as a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. The initial story used as its primary sources “two people familiar with the process.”

What do we know about these sources (and their reasons for seeking anonymity)? Not much.

Why are these identities being cloaked? That’s not made clear.

Why does that matter? Because without knowing who they are, and why they are spreading this material, we cannot judge the validity of the information or their purpose in releasing it.

Does using such sources align with journalistic ethics? Let’s examine, using industry standards.

The Society for Professional Journalists provides the foundational Code of Ethics. It states that a journalist should: “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.” It instructs reporters to: “Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

Other industry codes offer similar instruction. The American Society of News Editor’s Statement of Principles maintains “Unless there is clear and pressing need to maintain confidences, sources of information should be identified.” The Associated Press Managing Editors’ Statement of Ethical Principles supports the idea that “when it is necessary to protect the confidentiality of a source, the reason should be explained.”

While the underlings sent out to disperse this information about Sandoval could have their careers altered by this act, of course, it does not seem like a case worthy of granting the most powerful protection journalists offer to their sources. These people seem more like operatives than whistleblowers. Worst case here, if there is no other way to confirm this story than through these confidential sources, the public waits a few weeks until a nominee emerges. Until then, this “news” is simply speculation.

Why Anonymous?

The Washington Post, in this case, does not provide any significant information about the sources, nor does it explain why the sources were allowed to be anonymous. That dynamic led other media organizations, such as Esquire and The Atlantic, to speculate about this “scoop” really being a political maneuver, aided by willing journalists, meant to troll the Republican Party and put its members on the defensive.

A day after this story emerged, Sandoval said he was withdrawing his name from consideration, without any significant corroboration that he was being seriously considered by the Obama administration or had any particular process from which to “withdraw” his name.

Without knowing who the sources are, and why they are spreading this material, we cannot judge the validity of the information or their purpose in releasing it.

In retrospect, this story boosted The Washington Post, filling its pages and web sites, and giving it a burst of attention from other media. It helped the Democratic Party put Republicans on edge.

But how did the readers really benefit? That’s not clear. So in this case, I say the anonymity was unwarranted.

The New York Times, to its credit, appears to be concerned about a surge in this type of shoddy journalism, within its pages and beyond. The Times reportedly is crafting a new policy for using anonymous sources, seemingly in response to abuses of the privilege, as documented by its Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who, coincidentally, left last month to work for The Washington Post.

At the local level, such abuses of anonymity show up in many venues and have differing effects, some of which I will cover in next week’s column.

In the meantime, I recommend you stay alert and act as a sentry for stories slipping by with anonymous sources. Sometimes, those will be used appropriately, and sometimes not.

If you see one, share it with me, and I’ll analyze its use and try to determine its appropriateness, in a similar process to the examples I’ll provide as illustrations next week.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.