Protected Sources

When should journalists rely on anonymous sources?

Almost never, most professionals say. Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, in January slammed staffers at BUSINESSWEEK for quoting them. Bloomberg, which in December bought BW from McGraw-Hill, uses unnamed sources “reluctantly only when the benefit … outweighs the lack of definitive attribution,” the editor said. Without names, he added, “readers have no proof that [the quotes] are more credible than hearsay.”

AP seems a touch more tolerant. Anonymity is acceptable, it says, if “the material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.” But it holds that the source must be reliable and the information cannot be gotten otherwise.

So, for us at the J School, the question arises: was it right to grant anonymity to a young illegal immigrant arguing against a plan in the state Legislature to boost tuition for illegals at the state university? The piece, headlined “Nebraska lawmakers and education officials debate immigrant tuition bill,” is a leaned-down version of an earlier story that identified the student.

Acting with compassion and prudence, my colleagues yanked that first story off our Website,, after the student had second thoughts about her identity becoming known. No one here wants to put a student — barely an adult, really — in the crosshairs of politicians who could make life difficult and much more expensive for her. My fellow teachers here are educators, first and foremost. We’re all here to give students a shot at fuller lives and meaningful careers.

Still, the case is rich with lessons — and questions. The first piece, for instance, put a human face on an otherwise sterile and abstract debate. This came across with power in such details as a photo and audio slideshow where the student made her case — in her own voice — about the value of education to an immigrant. Even the most tough-minded would have to feel sympathy: this girl’s parents braved a desert crossing in the early 1990s to get her across the border at age 2, and she wants nothing more than a good, affordable education to become a contributing American citizen. Our student journalist did a superb job in drawing out such color and detail.

Regrettably, most such details are now missing. The slide show is gone altogether, as are all other photos of the young woman. Instead, readers get only a cold abstraction. Consider the lede — “If Nebraska continues to help educate immigrant college students, the state will benefit in the run, says an undocumented student who attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

Does this put the argument in human terms? Does it make a reader feel anything? Further, does it meet the tests Bloomberg and AP apply for anonymity? In hindsight, an advocate for illegals, arguing with some passion, could make the same case with his or her name attached (a university official does so in the piece, but as blandly as a lawyer would). Perhaps the student could then have been referred to, with some detail about her situation but no names. Maybe this would buttress the argument a bit.

I believe my colleagues acted rightly in taking the student’s name and photos off the story. The woman — likely under 21 and a promising student — had pleaded that she didn’t understand the implications of going public on our Web site. Fair enough. Fear is a troubling thing, and it’s not uncommon for people to have second thoughts when the stakes are high and the personal cost steep. In a way, this young student has more to lose than, say, Rosa Parks.

But for everyone involved the cost of anonymity is high. For one, readers don’t see the face behind the argument. It all seems like just another bit of legislative yammering. Our illegal neighbors don’t even seem human, but are reduced to colorless terms such as “undocumented student.”

More troubling for journalists, we lose credibility. Every time we rely on an anonymous source, we say, “trust us, there really is a person behind these quotes but we just can’t tell you who that is.” Say that too often and readers will stop believing you. Finding people who are willing to put their names on the line in difficult situations can be hard work. But in the end, it makes for good journalism, the kind that can influence the actions of politicians.

7 thoughts on “Protected Sources

  1. I think there is a difference between relying on or quoting anonymous sources and not identifying the subject of a story because it could be potentially harmful to him/her. What do others think?

  2. Bob Evnen writes:
    Very interesting story, but atypical. The slide in media credibility can be traced in no small part to the now widespread use of anonymous sources. In the story of the young woman, the writers and editors felt sympathy and pulled the story. In other circumstances, where the predilections of writers and editors make them unsympathetic to their subject, they fire away without mercy. Overall, the broad compromise of sourcing mores has been pretty destructive.

  3. Bob,
    Thanks much. Anonymous sources are indeed a problem for credibility. One has to wonder whether the problem all began with Deep Throat, back in print journalism's halcyon days. Now, everybody who talks to the press thinks they should be treated the same way — even when their information is far less valuable. There are times like Watergate when anonymity was worthwhile. But Watergates don't come along that often. Thanks again.

  4. The biggest problem I have with articles that rely on anonymous sourcing is the failure to make clear the source's possible bias or stake in the outcome. This can be particularly troublesome in day-to-day, run of the mill political and business stories (Judith Miller, I'm thinking of you).

    On the hand, a great proportion of investigative pieces I have ever read or written relied at least in part on anonymous sourcing. The piece I wrote recently which tried to explain the larger business story behind a star fund manager's firing (with lessons for all people in business about high-level talent management) would not have been at all illuminating without some anonymously sourced material that went behind the "he said-she said" to get at the roots of the dispute.

  5. Aaron,
    Thanks for weighing in on this. And I'd like to see that piece about the star fund manager. Perhaps you can build in a link in your comment, or in a new comment?

    I agree that the bias or stake of the anonymous source should be shared with readers. Particularly in D.C. stories — where leaking is the way of life — this would seem central.

    But readers are better served and journalists made more credible when we name names, no? Certainly, unnamed sources seem to have a place in investigative stuff. But I just had a student do a piece on men and eating disorders built around a 26-year-old former self-starver who declined to be named.

    There are times when you can't ID a source, for sure. Too often, though, it seems like a lazy way to avoid finding someone who would give his or her name to the reader. My student, for instance, could have found an alternative to the anonymous noneater. And, even in investigative work, anonymous folks can often provide leads that can be independently corroborated. They need not always to be quoted, even if they inform a piece.

    Maybe the best bottom line is that anonymity should be rare, and conferred by reporters only when unavoidable. Instead, it's become a first reflex.

  6. I hope my point came across — I wasn't trying to defend commonplace or excessive use of anonymous sourcing and I agree that many times it can be a crutch or laziness. The anonymous quote should bear even greater scrutiny than anonymously sourced facts, for sure. I do think anonymous sourcing is often valuable and I fear sometimes that it's excessively demonized. Perhaps the pendulum has tilted too far in favor of anon. sources and should swing back. But it remains a critically necessary tool in the journalist's tool box.

    Take, for example, my story about the fired fund manager. It's here

    From a public lawsuit and other public statements, you got pure "he said-they said" with no idea why all this mess had really happened. By speaking with a large number of people who worked with the figures in the story, I feel I was able to not just fill in the background but provide a solid business lesson in high-level talent management. Those people are unwilling to be named for a variety of reasons but often because they don't want to be dragged into ongoing litigation and a mud-slinging match that their clients and employers surely don't want to see them associated with.

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