For readers puzzling over anonymous sources, a few primers

October 30, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

Huffington Post | Esquire | The New York Times

According to an anonymous source (OK, it was my editor, Andrew Beaujon), The Huffington Post offered readers “The Definitive Guide to Decoding Washington’s Anonymous Sources.”

Congress has made a lot of news lately, and journalists Ryan Grim and Jason Linkins write: “For those of you just walking into the theater, we thought a quick primer on some of the coded language the Capitol Hill press corps uses might be useful.”

“You have surely noticed that story after story is powered by the musings of anonymous congressional aides, lawmakers and White House officials. Can you believe any of this? Yes. But it depends. To a non-initiated reader, the description of these anonymous creatures may appear to be quite random. But embedded within them are major giveaways about the reliability of the information being passed on, and how much credit you should give it. For example, if the author of the story you’re reading is an experienced Capitol Hill reporter, the description of the source you’re reading is likely the result of an explicit agreement between the source and the reporter.”


Some examples: When you read something from a senior White House official, this means “a faction of the White House that has significant enough power within the building to get approval for such a quote,” while simply reading something from a Democratic aide means this is “a reporter who gave up and a source who was given a free hit.”

Lt. Colonel Robert Bateman wrote about anonymous sources from a different perspective in Esquire Magazine last week when he was asked to be one by a reporter in 2001. The reporter, who knew Bateman was a military strategist, wanted to talk about upcoming military operations. No, Bateman told him, “you know I can’t talk about stuff like that, even if I had a clue about anything like that. I’m not operational, I’m at a think-tank fercripesake. But even if I wasn’t, no.” “Bob, it’s not a problem,” he replied, “I already know most of what is going down. How about I just quote you as, ‘A respected military strategist’ or, ‘A long-time professional military planner’?”

“When you read a news account which cites, ‘unnamed sources’ and ‘a senior defense official’ and ‘a senior military leader’ and other such anonymous sources, you are often (though not always) being fed a line. A polite lie on the journalist’s part, but the problem is, you have not been let in on the lie. It is a well defined pirouette between journalists, political public affairs officers in all of the federal agencies, and the professional civil servants and military officers who serve at the direction of our political leaders. What happens is that there will be a press briefing (not a conference, that is something different) during which there are two parts, the ‘on the record’ parts, and then the ‘background’ briefing. In a briefing usually only the standing, regular, accredited press outlets are there, and all of them operate under these same ‘house rules’ I am about to describe. Left, Right, Center, the journalists in DC who cover the White House, State, and DoD, abide by the rules, because if they do not they will lose that most precious commodity — access.”

The New York Times also brought up the anonymous sources disconnect earlier this month in a column by Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who recently spoke with national security reporter Eric Schmitt about an article he’d written which used anonymous sources.

“From that conversation, and others with Times journalists, and from the contact I have continually with readers, I see a disconnect — a major gap in understanding — between how journalists perceive the use of anonymous sources and how many readers perceive them,” Sullivan writes.

Using anonymous sources can be necessary, she writes, but readers don’t like it and they don’t trust it. “The disconnection between reporters and readers is clear. But how to close that gap?” Sullivan writes.

She offers these suggestions: Reporters should use as much detail as possible and push back at sources requesting anonymity.

“Editors have a role here, too — in drawing a hard line by not allowing material from unidentified sources, particularly quotations, to be published. Reporters can then blame their editors, in the time-honored way, and sources may find they would rather be named than ignored.”

She also writes readers should remember that sometimes there is value in using anonymous sources.

“The Watergate scandal would never have been reported without them. Nor would the landmark warrantless wiretapping story in The Times in 2005 by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau,” Sullivan writes. “There are countless more recent others.”