This pandemoniac presidency has led to a national resurgence in the use of anonymous sources. While I generally have argued against them, and the journalist’s Code of Ethics also warns about their use, they do have a significant place in public discourse and should be protected.

Whistleblowers, in particular, need such shielding. They should be encouraged and rewarded for bringing to light abuses of public resources. In many cases, though, the opposite happens. They bravely speak up, only to be squashed and unfairly punished afterward. That’s why they might need anonymity.

Anonymity can help to protect these courageous people from abuses of power. They get their rewards when the wrongdoers are publicly exposed for their bad behavior. Society benefits. Corruption shrivels.

Hawaii News Now illustrated recently the stakes involved, when Rick Daysog reported about two supervisors in the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources who allegedly diverted a publicly funded helicopter trip on Maui, so the people aboard could pick hihiwai (a snail found in the island’s most remote streams) for an administrator’s wedding. A son of former enforcement chief Randy Awo also was somehow on the helicopter.

Besides the absorbed costs of the questionable side trip (you paid for this!), and the questionable guest, this case only was investigated by people within the department with a potential conflict of interest. When those folks looked at it, according to Daysog’s reporting, they determined “The helicopter was on a break from a federally-funded marijuana eradication operation, and the … DOCARE officers were on personal leave.”

No problem; case closed.

Even that statement, on its face, raises many questions that demand further inquiry. Since when does a helicopter – on a small mission like this, on an island as tiny as Maui – need a break? And how did the officers, apparently working during this trip, suddenly transition into “personal leave” time when the snails needed to be harvested? How long was this break? Who absorbed those costs? Why do this (was it a kickback from the helicopter company to keep state funds flowing its direction)? And so on.

State Sen. Will Espero is quoted in the story as saying whistleblowers faced retaliation for raising questions about this trip, and the DNLR administration appears to have tried to cover up the case.

The solution: Public pressure, via journalism, compels DNLR to turn the case over to the state Attorney General’s office (or at least the state’s Ethics Commission). The whistleblowers and HNN have done their jobs. They put this information into your hands. What you do with it now is the government you deserve.

The people we really need to protect with anonymity are not the political and corporate hacks, aggressively trying to mislead the public.

Because HNN was dealing with whistleblowers, who feared for their jobs, and livelihoods, anonymity appears warranted in this case. Sometimes, there are no other options.

Civil Beat, in its work, rarely uses anonymous sources, and when it does, it typically follows its policy and explicitly explains the application of it. For example, when Civil Beat’s Stewart Yerton wrote recently about Airbnb bills under consideration at the Legislature, a local property owner was allowed to comment anonymously about her illegal rentals as a way to bring light to the issue without also attracting legal penalties for the source.

Journalists (and their news organizations) should openly share their policies on anonymous sources, so everyone involved, including the journalists making the deals, and their audiences, fully understand the procedures and protocol. While I could quickly locate Civil Beat’s policy, I could not easily find such a policy for the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Hawaii News Now, KHON or KITV.

At the most fundamental level, journalists simply cannot do their jobs without their sources and their sources’ trust. Everyone counts on journalists to get information right, and if that information is highly sensitive, sometimes the source of it needs to be hidden, to protect the source from retribution.

The important part of this anonymity arrangement to understand is that the source of the information is not as important as the information itself. So when assessing whether the source deserved anonymity, I usually start there. What did we learn from the source? And was that worth it?

The trade-offs are everywhere and extreme in the national media landscape, in which we have learned from anonymous sources, for example, that abruptly fired FBI director James Comey kept detailed and contemporaneous memos about his interactions with a potentially Manchurian candidate of a president (but we have yet to learn what was actually in those memos).

CNN’s chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, recently packed a bunch of anonymous sources together to opine about the state of the president’s mind, including this head-slapping sourcing, from “someone who speaks with” the president: “He now lives within himself, which is a dangerous place for Donald Trump to be. I see him emotionally withdrawing. He’s gained weight. He doesn’t have anybody whom he trusts.”

What did we really learn from that anonymity deal with a tertiary player? It certainly wasn’t worth the social-capital cost.

In another corner of this ring are the propagandists and story spinners, who sneakily monger salacious details that make headlines in exchange for a chance to appear neutral in otherwise valid and reliable news sources. They deceitfully deposit their seeds of doubt or misinformation. News sources get clickable stories, while cloaking the lobbyist. The public loses every time in that deal.

An example of this is Fox News’ “alternative fact” reporting (without a byline, even) about the accusation that White House adviser Jared Kushner did not really try to set up a secure American-excluded “backchannel” with Russia. It was really the Russians’ idea, according to a “source,” described only as “familiar with the matter.”

Think about that label carefully. Are you familiar with this matter? If so, you, too, could get into that sort of spinning zone.

The people we really need to protect with anonymity are not the political and corporate hacks, aggressively trying to mislead the public. If they want to talk, they can do it with their names and titles attached.

The people that need journalistic shielding are the sources like disabled veteran John Landrysmith, who reportedly blew the whistle on a USS Arizona Memorial staff member a few years ago who was benefitting from trading free National Park Service tickets to local tour companies.

In another recent Daysog report on HNN, Landrysmith recounted how he worked at the memorial trying to help members of the public get access to the Arizona, only to be frustrated by the hundreds of tickets diverted daily to profiteering tour companies (in exchange for gifts to the NPS staff member). In short, the tour companies were making money off the free public resource, leaving out those unwilling or unable to pay for what our taxes already fully supported.

By doing what was right, and saying something about this corrupt practice, Landrysmith claims he received a verbal warning, was retaliated against in various ways and eventually “not retained.” He later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, which was settled in exchange for a year’s salary (also public funds).

While Daysog’s story does not address the “why report it now?” question, it does reveal the threat a whistleblower truly faces. It illustrates efforts and resources an institution – even one as generally benign as the National Park Service – can muster (peers, supervisors, lawyers, out-of-court settlements) to cover up wrongdoing.

So we can cite lots of cases where anonymity was not warranted, particularly in relation to the Washington press corps. Yet we also should keep in mind that sometimes anonymity is needed and necessary for journalists to do their jobs.

Not all anonymous sources are created equal. Some do benefit you, and those should be protected at all costs, despite threats of incarceration from the highest levels of power.

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

    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.