June 16, 2005

Most readers and journalists agree that rewards can outweigh the risk of reporting based on anonymous sources. Still, a significant number of readers say the media would be better off not using them, even if that means waiting longer for an important story.

A recent survey of 419 media outlets found that most allow reporters to protect a source’s identity in at least some cases. But nearly one-quarter of editors said they’ve banned the practice entirely. Responding to a voluntary online survey sent out by local newspapers, a similar number of readers — about one in five — said media outlets should never report information if a source isn’t willing to be named.

“I am tired of questionable stories naming an ‘unnamed source,’ or a ‘source related to the presidency’ or whatever,” said Cindy Johnson of Astoria, Ore. “If people are willing to give information, they should be willing to give their name. It is far too easy to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.”

Instead of offering news, anonymous sources have been the news recently, in two high-profile cases: the unveiling of “Deep Throat” and a since-retracted Newsweek report on an incident of Quran abuse. With media policy under wide discussion, The Associated Press and Associated Press Managing Editors surveyed journalists and readers to gauge attitudes toward anonymity in news stories.

The APME reviewed comments from 1,611 readers in 42 states, who were asked to describe how anonymous sources affect their trust in the news. Most readers were willing to leave them in the reporter’s toolbox, and many said the media simply couldn’t cover important stories without being able to protect people in vulnerable positions. Still, 44 percent said anonymity makes them less likely to believe what they read, consistently invoking one descriptive phrase: the double-edged sword.

“Anonymity brings with it a willingness to cast light into the dark places that hide secrets about what we all need to know,” said Bruce Fritz of Mesa, Ariz. “On the other hand, the use of anonymous sources makes the media a dupe for putting out unreliable stories.”

Editors should be willing to take the risk for an important report, readers said, holding the government and other powers accountable. But they cautioned that the only credibility at stake is the media’s: The more believable a newspaper has been in the past, the more likely readers are to accept its judgment on anonymity. But trust the wrong source, and the public will stop trusting you.

Used properly, said Kenneth Stammerman of Louisville, Ky., hidden sources aren’t just important for bombshell stories. They’re also a tool toward effective and accurate daily reporting. “When I was in the American Foreign Service as an embassy economist in Tel Aviv, Kuwait, or Dhahran, I would provide nonclassified but sensitive info to reporters who knew me (and I them) to make sure they got the stories right. If they used my name in the story, my own sources would dry up.”

But most readers said the hustle for a “scoop” has made the media too eager to cater to anonymous sources, and too willing to run stories without corroborating evidence. Seeking verification is the most important thing a reporter can do; the public says it’s willing to wait for a more trustworthy news report.

“Anonymous sources should be considered the journalistic equivalent of the ‘nuclear option,’ ” said Kevin Crawford of Yakima, Wash. “If the information provided cannot be independently verified, it cannot and should not be used. The standard of verification must be set much higher for anonymous sources than that used for open sources, as the risks associated with error are so much higher.”

As part of the survey, readers were also asked to review common journalistic guidelines on the use of anonymous sources, including these rules from The Associated Press: An anonymous source may be used when …

  • the material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report;

  • the information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source;

  • the source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

A great majority of readers said these guidelines seemed fine. If, that is, newspapers actually follow them.

“I have read too many news stories that ignore the first part of this rule, that it be for information and not speculation,” said John Beck of Portsmouth, R.I. “The rules might be sufficient if they were adhered to, but I believe that much of the media has an agenda and are quick to use anonymous sources who provide evidence to support that belief.”

Other responses to the survey suggested ways to make newspaper policies stronger.

  • Go out of your way to point out anonymity, so readers at least have the opportunity to weigh credibility.

  • Always report why the source requested to remain unnamed (unless such information would lead to identification).

  • Always connect the source to the story. Why is he or she in a position to know?

  • Only use anonymous sources as supplementary material, not as the primary peg for a story.

  • In the case of a consistent source, offer a “batting average.” Describe how often the source has been right in the past.

  • Discuss all of the possible motives for this source to be giving you information. Consider explaining those motives in the story.

  • If an anonymous source gives you bad information, burn the source.

  • Do everything possible to independently verify the information from your source. If there’s no corroborating evidence, tell your readers. Or better yet, just hold the story, because the public is willing to wait if it means reporting will be more trustworthy.

“The media occasionally needs to use anonymous sources to get stories that need to be told,” said Susan Stith of Jacksonville, Fla. “It’s understandable that some stories are so explosive that sources are not willing to be quoted by name. However — and this is where the media behaves irresponsibly — the press must confirm the story … If you can’t, throw it back to your source to find more sources for you. The source obviously wants the story told, otherwise they would not have approached you at all — if they want the story told, they’ll assist you in corroborating it.”

The survey also asked readers to comment on three recent examples of anonymous sources in news stories. In each case, they found arguments for and against.

Case 1: Details of an intelligence report on troop strength in Iraq were revealed in a newspaper story, which made clear that the report was classified. Military officers aren’t supposed to discuss classified material; that’s why they were anonymous in the story.

Readers discussing this example were overwhelmingly worried about the damage that could be caused by reporting troop information. “I think this was a story that was inappropriate to release to the public because it could put soldiers currently in Iraq at greater risk than they already are,” said Julie Elliott of Janesville, Wis. “When lives are at stake, certain information should remain classified.”

“As a retired Naval Officer, I firmly believe that any officer who reveals classified information has broken his oath, and should be court-martialed,” said John A. Merritt III of Neptune Beach, Fla.

Christopher Speh of Durham, N.C., said he’d give the experts the benefit of the doubt. “If military officers believe there is a reason for the American public to know something, they should know whether or not they are endangering lives by releasing that information. I trust their judgment.”

“There are two reasons for classifying information: public knowledge of it could endanger human life or it could expose mistakes or misdeeds of politicians and government officials,” said Bruce Guthrie of Bellingham, Wash. “In the former case it is unacceptable to quote the anonymous sources. In the latter case such quotation would be an admirable public service.”

Case 2: A newspaper story on conductor Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony included a comment from an anonymous musician, attacking Slatkin’s leadership and judgment.

“This is an appropriate use,” said Deborah Walsh of Hilliard, Ohio. “The source needed anonymity to protect his/her job or future evaluations. There was some opinion included but there were also facts. The opinion stated was the source’s obvious interpretation of the situation. Also, in a story such as this, it would be very easy to approach the conductor for a rebuttal, or to get the other side of the situation, to provide a balanced report.”

Trust the wrong source, and the public will stop trusting you.Stan Fulton of Mesa, Ariz., wanted to put the comments in context: “Is this just the opinion of one person? Did the reporter attend any rehearsals or the concert to witness the ‘… loud, crass and unbelievably ugly …’ music? … One person’s opinion alone would not be enough to justify causing Slatkin this kind of embarrassment.”

Case 3: An unnamed New York Mets club official said the team was close to signing a contract with pitcher Kris Benson.

Many readers chalked this up to the standard practice of the sports news rumor mill. Besides, it’s just a baseball story, right? “It sounds like typical sports gossip to me and has been a fact of life since the beginning of sports reporting,” said Teri Anne Beauchamp of Everett, Wash. “No one takes it seriously, and a reasonable person would take it with a grain of salt anyway.”

But a significant number said the source’s possible motives are transparent, and not in line with the role a newspaper ought to play.

“Sometimes I sense that an unnamed source leaks information designed to affect the outcome of a pending situation,” said Patricia Klemme of Phoenix, Ariz. “In this case, the outcome of salary negotiations is pending perhaps. Or perhaps the source is heading off or stimulating competition for Mr. Benson’s talents. Governments seem to do this a lot, just to get feedback from the public, the so-called ‘trial balloon’ leaks.”

“The media is being used to pitch an idea to see how it plays with the public,” said Phyllis Chalfin, also of Phoenix. “Do you like being used?”

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