Anonymous Sources: To use or not to use?

Posted by Lillie Schrock

Some sources require they remain anonymous in news stories. Photo by Sasha Wolff via Flickr.

Last night, an article was posted on politico.com accusing presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexually harassing two women in the 1990s. While this stirred up quite a lot of conversation, there is one problem with the article: it does not cite any sources.

The article states “On the details of Cain’s allegedly inappropriate behavior with the two women, Politico has a half-dozen sources shedding light on different aspects of the complaints.” However, all of these sources are anonymous. Is it possible for a story to be credible when none of its sources are willing to be named?

Under the rules of the Associated Press, material from anonymous sources may be used only if:
1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

Additionally, the reporter’s manager must know the identity of the source, and is obligated, like the reporter, to keep the source’s identity confidential.

Nevertheless, there are many news organizations that do not follow these guidelines. According to Business Insider’s Policy on Anonymous Sources, “by maintaining healthy skepticism, and talking to as many sources as possible, we feel we can get a better picture of the real story than we can by only talking to folks who will go on the record.”

Should all news organizations be required to comply to the same rules on anonymous sources? Or should news organizations always do whatever they can to get their story out?

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5 responses to “Anonymous Sources: To use or not to use?

  1. This is an interesting and intriguing issue that goes back very far. I believe that each news organization has the right to do whatever they want in terms of its policy regarding anonymous sources. Each news organization has built its own reputations based on the reporting that it does, so if the news organization is comfortable running a story with anonymous sources, more power to them…it is the organization’s reputation on the line if the story causes problems.

    • I think you make a really good point about organizations’ reputations. If a publication has a positive reputation, then the public will be likely to have a positive response to a story with anonymous sources. The public will implement its own rules regarding anonymous sources because we’ll stop reading publications that overuse anonymous sources.

  2. I worry that if the sources are too afraid to go on the record, it’s because it may not be true and they may be called out for that. I understand that, in some cases, the sources may be confidential for safety reasons, but in others I’m not so convinced. In the specific case of the Herman Cain allegations, I feel that there are just too many unnamed sources. If it was only the women who remained unnamed, it would be a different story, but not a single person will come out in the public to back it up. It makes me a little skeptical.

    As for the rules, I think it’s tough to make them for all journalists, especially with the internet now. Anyone can be a journalist and it’s hard to patrol them all. I do feel that publications should strive to follow these rules to maintain honest and reliable, however, it’s almost impossible to make sure they do.

  3. I agree with Kylie that – thanks to the Internet – credibility can be dicey. We can’t trust everything we hear, and so we have to rely on news organizations to be accountable and honest. That being said, I’m not sure anonymous sources should always be ruled out. If we put our confidence in these news organizations to begin with, theoretically that confidence should also apply to their decisions regarding sources. I agree with the Associated Press guideline that says a manager, in addition to the reporter, must know the source. I wouldn’t trust an anonymous source if I knew the reporter was the only person privy to his/her identity.

  4. This is an interesting one, that is for sure. Our capstone magazine, Urban Plains recently had to keep a source anonymous by their request. The story was great and interesting. It even had the guy’s picture in it, but he still did not want his name in the article for whatever reason.
    I think as a publication, you have to make a decision on whether or not you are willing to run a source as anonymous or just seek other sources for the same information. I personally think he offered some good quotes, but I wish we could have put a name to them.

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