Tuesday, October 02, 2012


There is a symbiotic relationship between reporters and anonymous sources.  They knowingly use each other, the reporter to get a story that might not otherwise be possible, the source to get out a story that is advantageous to himself, to her organization, or to his or her cause.  This mutuality of purpose is well understood in the trade and by government officials, corporate PR flacks, and advocates.

There are times when anonymity is required, to protect a source’s life, liberty, or property.  Reporters and media outlets (in the United States) are generally legally protected from having to reveal the identity of sources.  This protection is part of our country’s freedom of press, a provision of the Constitution that is designed to prevent the government from unduly impairing the free exchange of ideas, including criticism of the government itself.

I have noticed a trend recently, though, that devalues this relationship, making a mockery of the valued and valuable symbiosis.  Let me give an example from a front page story in The New York Times, entitled “U.S. Abandoning Hopes for a Taliban Deal.”  Here’s the pertinent excerpt:

“I don’t see it happening in the next couple years,” said a senior coalition officer.  He and a number of other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the effort to open talks.

Let’s parse this.  This is a “delicate” situation, but not so delicate that several government representatives have clearly been given authorization to set out the current point of view for publication in one of the most widely read newspapers in the world.  The purpose:  To float a trial public policy balloon--or to begin to ease the government out of a policy failure--either for internal audiences in the US or international audiences.  (Certainly, it is not to divulge state secrets to the Taliban, as they already know the state of play in Afghanistan!)  Note that the sources did not want anonymity to protect their government jobs.  Really, the only reason their names have not been made public is to give those senior officials plausible deniability in the event there is an adverse political reaction.

So the reporters have allowed themselves to become complicit in “selling” a policy point of view.  In so doing, they gets bylines on a front page story with “news” made more persuasive by quotes from unnamed sources.  This is not brave reporting of the sort we all appreciated when the late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger took on the U.S. government during the Vietnam War.  It is rather a stage in downgrading the valuable uses to which anonymous sources can be put.

I have also seen more insidious versions of using anonymous sources.  In one case, a newspaper splayed out a story about a well regarded person who had been forced out of his job as president of a non-profit human services organization.  The reporter in the case relied on two anonymous sources from the organization, who implied that the executive had been asked to leave because of issues related to harassment.  The story said that sources could not be identified because this was a “personnel matter” which they were not permitted to discuss publicly.

But the reporter allowed the sources' words to be used anyway, to discuss a personnel matter in an extremely public manner.  Three months later, in a story given less prominence, we learned that there was, in fact, no issue of harassment.  Indeed, the inside story, never published, was that long-serving trustees were upset about organizational changes made by this relatively new president, which included personnel actions against some staff in the institution.  Whether the “sources” were board members loyal to those staff members--or the staff members themselves, or others--they were basically spreading a story that was meant to reflect poorly on the ousted president.

So, the real story was one of poor governance, an aspect never covered by the reporter in the first instance or in the follow-up.  The reporter was used by trustees or staff members acting as improperly protected anonymous sources.

My hope is that anonymous sources will continue to make themselves available to reporters for important issues that deserve to see the light of day.  My wish, though, is that reporters will be judicious in their use of such sources.  I hope that the reporters will avoid those sources who are just hawking an administration’s trial balloon or are engaged in personal vendettas.


John said...

From Facebook:

In the alleged but non-existent harassment case it does sound like the original story was gossip rather than news. The difference? Maybe a journalism student could help out here but perhaps the difference lies somewhere in the ad hominem nature of the allegations. That is, they were harmful to the individual yet served no public good.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that reporters must look deeper into the possible story once they get a tip. Some reporters do and others do not. There is an issue of transparency here - reporters can do what they think is right with little consequence. I think this is because there is very little leadership of the kind needed in today's media outlets. Media outlets have a great deal of power, in the way hospitals have, and can ruin a life as well. Where's their transparency? Where is their quality control? Where are the policy's that permit/encourage a media outlet to change it's story as "front page news." Reporters can be ruthless. They should have checks on their behavior which encourages them to be more human.