As a journalism professor, I teach my students about the standards and ethics of the journalism profession. One interesting place where law and ethics intersect is in the use of anonymous sources. It’s generally legal to use anonymous sources, but it is something journalists avoid if at all possible because it it highly subject to abuse.
Part of a journalist’s ethical obligation is make it clear with a source how information they provide will be attributed in a final product. There are a key phrases.
Off the record. Mashable has a useful article on off the record’s meaning, basically that when a reporter agrees to go off the record with you, they agree that they won’t publish what you tell them. As the article explains, this is frequently done so the source can give you a piece of context that, while not directly relevant to the issue, helps you as the reporter to understand the information you are getting.
On background. The Associated Press definition of this is that the information may be published, but the attribution will be negotiated between the journalist and the source. Typically, this means that the source won’t be named, but his or her relationship to the information will be clear (answering the “how do they know”?)
On deep background. This generally means that you might use the information, but there would be no mention of the source by name, position, etc., in the document.
Professional journalism outlets will have a stated policy about using anonymous sources. For example, here is the one for National Public Radio. These vary a bit from place to place, but as a general rule, I tell my students that anonymous sources are best avoided. This is because they are extremely risky for journalists personally and for the larger matter of the truth. Journalists get used by people in power of all sorts, and being anonymous means those in power don’t have to own their actions. For example, when government is considering a new policy or program, they will someone “leak” the information to a journalist in order to get it published and gauge public reaction. If the reaction is negative, they will blame the journalist for publishing “fake news.”
Typical newsroom policy is that more than one person needs to know the identity of the anonymous source (usually a journalist and an editor) and the information they provide must be verifiable in multiple ways, not just from one anonymous source. Sometimes, multiple anonymous sources will suffice for verification, but most outlets’s policies say this should be rare. It might happen in a whistleblower situation where a large number of people are at direct risk from the information.
I also tell my students that anonymous sources are a bad idea for a few serious reasons.
Your promise to allow anonymity should be a binding agreement that can have implications for you. Publishing an anonymous source puts a journalist in a controversial situation where they might have to choose whether to violate the source’s confidence or face imprisonment if a court wants the identify.
You deny your readers the ability to assess the credibility of your information if you aren’t clear about the source, and that is a real problem.
Implications for sources
In 2018, there is a great deal of information being sought and reported about the U.S. Government. At the same time, some potential sources are anxious about loss of employment or the potential for online or even physical harassment if they share with the media.
On top of that, the trend of labeling unattractive information as fake news means that media professionals are walking a delicate tightrope between the need to Seek Truth and Report It and to retain access to newsmakers. This is aggravated by the now much smaller staffs most news organizations are working with. Extra verification is more challenging than ever.
As a source, you can
- Make sure, if you talk with the media, that you are both very clear about information use and attribution.
- Help provide that extra verification. If you can’t speak on the record, who can corroborate what you say? If you can’t provide that, can you provide data or other original source material for verification?
- Understand that the definition of journalist is shifting. The American Press Institute notes that the professional practices of journalists separate them from other information sources. Anyone can publish something to the web, but that doesn’t mean they use those professional practices. You can find a list of them here. It is OK to ask someone who wants to interview you what their practices are before you decide if you want to talk to them.
- An actual journalist probably won’t talk to you if they can’t know who you are. They may not publish it, but they (and their editors) will want to know.