Here’s why you should be willing to believe anonymous sources

News organizations prefer for sources to go on the record — but often don't have a choice when sources don’t want to be named for fear of retribution.

September 8, 2020
Category: Newsletters

The biggest news story of the past few days was based on anonymous sources.

The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote how President Donald Trump has little regard for veterans and military members, calling them “losers” and “suckers” for getting killed in battle and/or volunteering for something bigger than their personal well-being.

Other news outlets, including the Associated Press and Fox News, have done their own reporting to confirm The Atlantic’s story, while Trump and his team have vehemently denied it. Critics of The Atlantic story are lashing out at its use of anonymous sources.

“We all have to use anonymous sources, especially in a climate where the president of the United States tries to actively intimidate,” Goldberg told CNN’s Brian Stelter on this weekend’s “Reliable Sources.” “These are not people who are anonymous to me.”

In the same episode, famed Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who worked with Bob Woodward to break many of the Watergate stories, told Stelter, “Almost all 200 of our stories about Watergate were based on anonymous sourcing.”

And, he said, it’s critical to use anonymous sources when reporting on this White House.

“Reporting is almost uniformly based on anonymous sourcing in part because that’s the only way we can get to the truth,” Bernstein said.

First, let’s be clear about this: News organizations would prefer for sources to go on the record. They don’t like using anonymous sources but often have no other choice. Sources don’t want to be named out of fear of retribution — either from those they are talking about or from the general public.

The problem with anonymous sources is that the public might not trust that the source actually exists or that the source is truly reliable. Whenever a news organization uses an anonymous source, they are telling their audience, “Trust us. We cannot tell you who this person is, but we can tell you that we believe they are credible, they know what they’re talking about, that we believe what they have to say and you should, too.”

But, frequently, the audience doesn’t want to hand over that trust. Often, it’s because they don’t want the story to be true. Using last week’s example, Trump supporters might rather dismiss the story as being false instead of admitting that it could be true. And if no one is publicly putting their name on the allegations, dismissing it is easier to do.

And even audiences willing to admit that the sources exist, naturally, would prefer to know who those sources are so they can judge for themselves just how much stock to put into their information. (To use an example, the term “White House source” potentially could refer to almost anyone, from a senior advisor to a low-level staffer — and one could be in the know more than the other.)

While I cannot speak for every news organization out there, I can tell you that, in my experience, the threshold for using anonymous sources is very high. It’s a last resort and, typically, the information provided by an anonymous source is confirmed by at least one other source.

Is it possible for news organizations to make up an anonymous source? Sure, anything is possible. But it’s highly unlikely. Nothing is more crucial to a news organization than its trustworthiness, and that could be ruined forever if it was ever caught making up sources. News outlets know that and would be loath to risk such a thing. And because of the editing and vetting process, and the number of people involved in that process, it’s nearly impossible to make up sources or quotes or to run a story that the news outlet doesn’t believe to be true.

While media cynics might not want to believe this, those who work for reputable news organizations do take their code of ethics seriously and should be given the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. (The key words there are “reputable news organizations.”)

Still, news organizations need to realize that as long as they use anonymous sources, there will be a segment of the population that simply will not trust the information in the story. That is the price to be paid when quoting someone anonymously.

More on the Atlantic story

It was somewhat curious to see Fox News tie itself into a knot with the Atlantic story. Fox News’ pundits had a problem with The Atlantic story even though Fox News’ national security correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, went on the air to confirm Trump’s disrespect of the military.

Contributor Geraldo Rivera called it a “hit job.” Fox News’ Pete Hegseth tweeted, “This Atlantic ‘story’ is nothing but a textbook Leftist hit-job. Always anonymous. Always coordinated. And, as we’ve seen with all the other anti-Trump hoaxes, always fabricated. The Left knows how @realDonaldTrump defends & revers our vets/military—so they attack his strength.”

On the air, Hegseth said, “Always anonymous sources. This happened, supposedly, two years ago, now we’re finding out about it 60 days before the election. By the way, the Trump campaign has scores of people on the record saying that’s of course not what we heard or saw. This story in The Atlantic has been catnip for haters of the president.”

Hegseth needs to be careful with this “anonymous sources” rhetoric, seeing how Fox News uses their share of “sources said” to back their stories. In fact, many noted that Fox News’ John Roberts used “sources” to shoot down the idea that Trump ever said anything to disrespect the military.

Kudos, however, to Griffin for doing her job and reporting what she learned. And, kudos, too, for Fox News’ Bret Baier for standing up for Griffin while filling in for Chris Wallace as moderator on “Fox News Sunday.” The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr also pointed out others at Fox News who stood up for Griffin.

One last thing

One last thought about The Atlantic story. This is another thing that happens when you have a blockbuster story: It doesn’t go away. As Goldberg told Stelter on CNN, “I would fully expect more reporting to come out about this and more confirmation and new pieces of information in the coming days and weeks.”

Journalism that matters

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Postal Service on Capitol Hill last month. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

The Washington Post had a blockbuster story over the weekend. The Post’s Aaron C. Davis, Amy Gardner and Jon Swaine reported that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major donor and supporter of President Trump and the Republican Party, created an environment at his former business where employees felt pressured to donate to the campaigns of GOP candidates and then were later “reimbursed” with bonuses. This allegedly happened at DeJoy’s former company, New Breed Logistics.

David Young — a longtime human resources director at DeJoy’s company who had access to payroll records at New Breed from the late 1990s until he retired in 2013 — said, “Louis was a national fundraiser for the Republican Party. He asked employees for money. We gave him the money, and then he reciprocated by giving us big bonuses. When we got our bonuses, let’s just say they were bigger, they exceeded expectations — and that covered the tax and everything else.”

The Post spoke to other employees at New Breed who confirmed the allegations. One former employee told the Post, “He would ask employees to make contributions at the same time that he would say, ‘I’ll get it back to you down the road.’”

A spokesperson for DeJoy told the Post that DeJoy was not aware that any of his former employees felt pressured to donate to any political campaigns.

The Post’s Amber Phillips has a helpful piece on the legal lines that DeJoy might have crossed, including covering up the sources of political donations, using corporate money to cover up donations and potentially coercing employees to give.

So why do I mention this story here in a media newsletter? Two reasons: one, it’s really good journalism that you should read. But, two, this is the kind of tag-team journalism that is so valuable to readers. A group of reporters puts together an outstanding, well-reported piece and then there’s easy-to-digest analysis to tell you why this all matters.

This is journalism done right.

An emotional moment

ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

ESPN’s College GameDay is one of the best sports studio shows ever. But, this past weekend might have produced the most emotional moment in the history of the show, which debuted in 1987. Analyst Kirk Herbstreit broke down while talking about social injustice.

He quoted Ben Franklin, saying, “‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.’ … That’s what I mean when I think the Black community is hurting. If you’ve listened — the word empathy and compassion over these last four months — how do you listen to these stories and not feel pain and not want to help?”

You need to watch the segment to understand just how emotional Herbstreit became. Powerful stuff. The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch has more on how it all came together. (Note: the story is behind a paywall.)

“College GameDay” producer Jim Gaiero told Deitsch, “I was crying as I was counting us down to the break. It was a powerful moment. The whole crew was emotionally spent. There was still nine minutes left in the show, but I think the whole crew realized they had just been part of something.”

Meanwhile, this was also noteworthy from Saturday’s show: Longtime “College GameDay” analyst Lee Corso said that college football should be erring on the side of caution and not be playing right now because of the coronavirus.

“I agree with the Big Ten and the Pac-12 about not playing college football this season because of the ‘what ifs?’ Basically, there are a number of people — thousands of people involved in college football,” Corso said. “I would not play football until February 2021.”

Sports Twilight Zone

Jockey John Velazquez riding Authentic, right, crosses the finish line to win the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

If you’re a sports fan like me, this week is when the world really felt turned upside down. This past weekend saw all of the following: the Kentucky Derby, the U.S. Open tennis tournament, the Tour de France, the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs, the NBA playoffs, Major League Baseball, NASCAR’s playoffs, a PGA tournament and college football. The NFL kicks off Thursday night and then there’s a full slate of games this weekend.

Most of this is without fans. Credit the networks for not only juggling their schedules to fit all these events on TV, but for continuing to produce television worth watching in these truly bizarre times.

By the way, overnight TV ratings for the Kentucky Derby, normally the first Triple Crown race run in May, were good and bad. The bad: The race portion on NBC averaged 8.3 million viewers — the lowest on record, dating back to 1988. The good: It was the most-watched sporting event on TV since the NFL Draft in April. Again, chalk it up to the odd sporting schedule of 2020.

Gannett’s big move

Gannett announced this morning that Mayur Gupta will be the company’s new chief marketing and strategy officer. Gannett says he will be responsible for “driving the vision and strategy as the company transforms

to a subscription-led content business. This continuous evolution in a digital economy will strengthen Gannett’s mission to build trusted local communities at the intersection of the organization’s direct-to-

consumer and business-to-business endeavors. He will also lead the marketing and growth functions, connecting data, technology and storytelling to deliver original content through apps, audio, video, live events and emerging technologies to an audience of nearly 175 million in the U.S. and U.K.”

To take this job, Gupta has resigned from Gannett’s board of directors.

An engineer turned marketer, Gupta most recently was the chief marketing officer at Freshly. Before that, he worked at Spotify and other companies.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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