Anonymous sources are important tools for journalists. They can provide information that changes the course of history (insert obligatory Deep Throat reference here), usually in the form of an insider whose conscience gets the better of them.
For example, an article in The Link this week, which talks to an anonymous member of Concordia University’s Board of Governors about events that happened in closed-door meetings. Because the source is violating a trust in publicizing such information, there’s a legitimate reason to keep that source’s identity secret. And because the issue of Concordia’s president is an important one in the university community, the issue is of sufficient importance to base an article mainly on the information provided by such a source.
But anonymity can also be used for less altruistic purposes, like politicians smearing mud about their opponents while staying squeaky clean. (Henry Kissinger was notorious for this)
This week, journalists from La Presse were ordered by a judge to divulge the sources of information about Adil Charkaoui. Charkaoui, living under a “security certificate” which allows the government to restrict freedoms without presenting any evidence to the accused, is suing the government and trying to get all the information about him released. He says this information is entirely false.
The use of anonymous sources has become more prevalent in reporting. The phrase “spoke on condition his name not be used” is all over the place, many times for information that doesn’t advance the course of the story at all. A reporter writing about an untimely death goes to the home and finds nobody there. He then goes to the neighbour’s place, and gets a quote or two on condition of anonymity. The quote is the same generic “he was always a good kid” stuff that everyone says, but this particular source just isn’t crazy about having his name in the paper. Is anonymity really necessary in this case?
In recent years, newspapers have started implementing rules about anonymous sources, the most visible being that articles must state the reason a source has been left anonymous. Unfortunately, in most cases that explanation turns out to be “spoke on condition his name not be used” or “spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject” or something similar.
It’s time to start re-thinking how we use anonymous sources, understanding that they diminish our credibility, especially when it’s later discovered the source was wrong or outright lied. I wouldn’t go so far as to ban them outright, as some news organizations have done, but I would make sure certain rules are enforced (and most of these are enforced by professional news agencies):
- Make every effort to get sources to go on the record with information. “This is off the record” isn’t a one-way conversation, it has to be an agreement with the reporter, and it should be done for a compelling reason.
- Provide information about the source (like “senior White House aide”) so we know where they’re coming from.
- Investigate the reliability of the source. Refuse to publish information anonymously from sources whose reliability is doubtful or who are clearly attempting to manipulate the media. Do not accept blind anonymous information (documents left in a paper bag) unless that information is verified.
- Investigate the reliability of the information. Require corroboration for all anonymous material. Do not print anonymous rumours, no matter how many anonymous sources it comes from. Do not agree to anonymity when the information is self-serving.
- Verify all anonymously-obtained documents through an official source. They can be faked.
- Disclose the identity of all anonymous sources to an editor (this helps avoid fabrications). Require editor approval before an anonymous source is used.
- Provide information about the source’s agenda if relevant (and the reason a source comes forward anonymously is always relevant). If information about a Liberal MP comes from a Conservative one, this should be noted (and be subjected to even greater scrutiny).
- Verify the information provided using official, reliable sources. Avoid relying on the anonymous source if the information can be obtained elsewhere. (Even if this is done, note that it originally came from an anonymous source.)
- Include why the source requested anonymity (and make sure it’s a damn good reason).
- Do not provide anonymous sources for opinion or conjecture.
- Avoid quoting anonymous sources directly. Don’t quote an anonymous source just because the quote is interesting.
- Make the agreement contingent on the information being accurate. If it’s determined that the information was knowingly inaccurate or that the source was otherwise dishonest, identify the source and do not use again.
- Do not write stories based on stories from other news agencies that quote anonymous sources. Especially if those sources include celebrity gossip websites or supermarket tabloids.
- But most of all: Use anonymous sources only when the information provided is vital to the story.
We have reputations to uphold. Anonymous sources are exceptions to the rule that should be used only when absolutely necessary. They’re not a loophole to be exploited when someone’s uncomfortable or a journalist is lazy.