Anonymous Sources and Pseudonyms in Journalism

Posted by Marissa Mumford

The Washington Post recently published the gripping struggles of a sexually assaulted war veteran. Per her request, the source is identified only by her middle name, Diana. “Diana” pretends all is well while secretly accumulating doctor’s visits and battling stress and paranoia.

Credit to Leland Francisco, licensed under Creative Commons

Diana was viciously brutalized and hasn’t shared her story with family or friends. It isn’t the Washington Post’s job to make her pain known to the world. I understand that. Ethically, it feels right. But from a journalistic point of view, is this okay? If a prestigious news source is going to publish a lengthy piece on sexual abuse in the armed forces, shouldn’t the source be entirely verifiable?

Journalists need to be held to a high standard when it comes to unnamed sources and their responsibility is first to the reader. It is important to protect a source’s privacy. It is even more important to make sure the readers are being provided accurate and complete information.

The journalism world is one of high pressure. Reporters are required to produce interesting, accurate material that meets a plethora of expectations from editors and readers. Many a journalist has caved under such crushing weight. In fact, fabrication is far more common than we would like to admit. The infamous Janet Cooke child heroin addict story is a prime example of what can happen when journalists are not held accountable.

The Society of Professional Journalists provides two main guidelines for anonymity. While they are helpful, they are not exhaustive. Anonymity remains one of the major gray areas in journalism ethics. Another Washington Post article reported that more and more individuals are requesting anonymity for reasons that hardly seem to qualify. So what do we do? It can be difficult for journalists to maintain an ethical standard if it means passing up a potentially great story.

Social media means anyone can become a reporter. That makes the importance of true journalism even more important: if reputable news sources can’t produce stories that are verifiable and provide the whole truth, who will?

There are cases in which anonymity is mandatory, specifically if the story relays personal information that would place a source’s career, relationships, or life in jeopardy. That being said, journalists and editors must weigh the consequences of anonymity and the effect it may have on credibility and accuracy.

Have you ever used an anonymous source? Does the usage of anonymous sources make you question a publication’s credibility? What steps should be taken to assure accuracy when using an anonymous source?

7 responses to “Anonymous Sources and Pseudonyms in Journalism

  1. I don’t tend to have a problem with anonymous sources. While I understand where you’re coming from, I think that if the public could really benefit from hearing about an issue, and the source would like to remain anonymous, the need to tell the story trumps the risk of using anonymity.

    • The use of anonymous sources should certainly depend on the importance of the story being told. However, I think it can potentially be all too easy for journalists to embellish or even fabricate. This is what happened to Janet Cooke. She had been told a child heroin-addict existed but was unable to find him, so she made him up.

  2. I actually dealt with this issue recently when writing an article for Drake Magazine about felons lives after prison. One of my sources had lost contact with his Des Moines-based gang when he was sent to prison for a gang-related attempted murder. When the source was released, he wanted to lay low and avoid gang members knowing that he was out of prison because it was expected that he would join the gang life once again.

    The particular gang had a blood-in, blood-out rule, which the source explained meant that if he truly wanted to leave the gang, they would have to beat him. This would have potentially been the case if anyone realized he was living in the area. Since Drake Magazine has the potential to be seen in the Drake community, the editorial team of Drake Magazine discussed the issue and decided it justified changing the sources name for his safety. I don’t think I could have lived with myself if something had happened to the source, no matter how small the odds.

    • I just read your article! This is exactly one of the pseudonym cases I would highlight as being totally legitimate. In your specific case, their was a very clear, genuine source, the name had just been modified to protect him. I think that is a totally valid use of a pseudonym. No matter what, I of course believe human life should always trump journalistic accuracy.

  3. I agree that most stories don’t need anonymous sources, but I think that it is absolutely appropriate to use an anonymous source for this story just because of the stigma of sexual assault in the military. Many rape victims don’t report it in the military because of the potential negative fallout and impact on their careers. If it’s not something she’s comfortable sharing publicly, I support that since it’s something that could negatively impact her if it got out.

  4. In the context of something as serious as sexual abuse in the military, I agree that sources should be fully identified. It is just too easy for stories to get blown out of proportion and fabricated if the source requests to be anonymous. On the other hand, I think it’s OK in some instances to remain anonymous. LIke fun, not so serious articles that Cosmo posts sometimes protects their sources names to avoid embarrassment to them. But, of course, that is just for fun and not controversial.

    • Hannah, you make a good point. The controversy and topic should certainly determine whether or not the source can be anonymous. I think the issue remains accountability: if a journalist is using an anonymous source on an important topic, the facts should all be verifiable by other individuals.

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