Show me an editor who won’t let reporters use anonymous sources, as one-quarter of those who responded to a recent Associated Press survey claimed, and I will show you a newspaper that probably ignores its constitutional purpose.
That’s because any journalist who won’t bother with unidentified sources will never get at the heart of corruption in government. It’s the nature of the creature that where there is criminality, waste and self-dealing in public affairs, there is secrecy. And reporters don’t get told secrets unless they promise to keep the secret-tellers secret. So not permitting use of anonymous sources eliminates one of the most important devices in a scribe’s toolbox.
The Associated Press survey, which elicited responses from 419 of the country’s 1,450 daily newspapers — about 28 percent — found editors at 103 papers never allow their reporters to use anonymous sources.
“Our policy is to get people on the record — period,” Eileen Lehnert, editor of the Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, told AP reporter David Crary. “Once you operate from that standpoint, you rarely have to reconsider your position.”
And if you operate from that standpoint, you rarely get a genuine glimpse of how political leaders exert their power; how bureaucrats are pressured by elected officials; how wealthy business interests win political favors; how government resources are wasted; and so forth. Witnesses of misbehavior rarely come forth without assurance of anonymity, for fear of their jobs and of their physical well-being.
So readers of these timid newspapers are left only with nice little community interest stories, and reports on local government meetings based on public testimony. Such content is sometimes useful and entertaining, but it hardly captures the activity that really drives political decisions — and dishonesty.
The First Amendment to the Constitution promoted free speech and a free press to keep government accountable to the people. Because the government has confiscatory power over its citizens, the media should explore every bureaucratic cranny into which public pennies fall.
According to the AP survey, almost all editors who refused to use anonymous sources came from small or midsize cities. Ken Stickney, an editor for the News-Star in Monroe, La., said he refuses to let his own reporters keep sources unidentified but carries new service stories with them, “because sometimes you can’t get anything out of Washington without them.”
That is illogical. The nature of extracting information from the nation’s capital is no different than getting it out of local government. Oftentimes it’s the city and county officials who get away with mischief because the small-market paper is instead focused on human-interest stories.
Yes, the preference should be for attributable quotes and identified sources. It is always desirable to see exactly who is behind an allegation or a piece of information. That way other affected characters in the story can provide their perspective knowing all the players involved.
But that simply is not always possible, so anonymity rules are necessary. Information obtained from unnamed sources should be substantiated with another resource, either an individual or some authoritative documentation.
If an anonymous source is quoted, then as much information as possible about that person should be revealed. Why he remains nameless should be explained, as should any personal biases that informant might have. To keep reporters accountable, the identities of unnamed individuals in stories should be given to an editor to prove their authenticity.
The recent Newsweek fiasco, in which the magazine made a false report based on a faulty source about Koran abuse at Guantanamo prison in Cuba, has overheated the current backlash against using anonymous sources. The long-refined journalistic process, which traditionally demands serious editorial scrutiny, has largely shown a sense of responsibility when it comes to anonymity. The established ethic is to provide more information, not less.
Sloppiness — most notably by the CBS News false report last fall about President Bush’s National Guard service — has tainted the journalism profession. But that doesn’t change the standards, and it doesn’t nullify the ongoing need for behind-the-scenes sources to come forward with important information for the public.
How much more efficient, clean and responsive would government be if every newspaper used anonymous sources — responsibly, of course? Sadly, the readers of as much as 25 percent of the nation’s dailies may never know.
Paul Chesser is associate editor of the Carolina Journal in Raleigh, N.C.