September 11, 2007
Nearly every journalist uses anonymous sources. And nearly every journalist condemns the practice. No wonder the public thinks we're bigger snakes than any profession except lawyers and Nigerian princes seeking help transferring their inheritance to a bank in the United States.
So, let me be truthful. I love anonymous sources. I couldn't write my weekly political column without them. (Well, I could, but it wouldn't be as much fun.) I've even dared to let one confidential informant intrude here (see "New Spin or Death Spiral?
"). I took some flack from a reader for that, but I don't see how the story - which subsequent events indicated was accurate - could have been done without it.
Nevertheless, everybody who's anybody in the media will tell you anonymous sources are Bad Things. Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, once called them "the root of all evil in journalism."
Of course, there are people who think the same of Al Neuharth.
Peter Szekley of Reuters told the Christian Science Monitor he thought reporters just used them to add "an aura of mystery" to their stories.
I always though they used lousy writing to accomplish that.
Numerous surveys of editors and other news professionals show overwhelming majorities believe the practice makes stories less believable. At least one survey of readers showed most of them didn't care.
As with many controversies about journalistic ethics, a lot of the debate over anonymous sources is so much mental masturbation. In reality, nearly every reporter assigned to cover anything more exciting than listing new strays brought in to the local animal shelter relies on confidential informants. They just don't tell their readers about them. Or, in many cases, their self-righteous editors. Because to do so would only screw up what has always been a productive relationship.
Here's how it works: Somebody calls a reporter and reveals some information. Maybe the reporter knows who that somebody is. Maybe not. Doesn't much matter. The reporter checks the tip out, determines if it's true and writes a story. In most cases, there's no mention of the original spark that produced this little flame of knowledge. But that doesn't change the fact that an anonymous source was at work.
Reporters who engage in this sort of activity - that is, all reporters - defend their decisions not to reveal the existence of their informants to readers. It's not important, they claim, because everything they were told by their Deep Throats was confirmed on the record by documents or interviews. Everything, that is, except the secret sources' hidden agendas.
Wouldn't it be more honest to include a line that said news of the mayor's bankruptcy was first brought to the attention of the writer by a political opponent? Wouldn't it help readers gain perspective to know the chemical spill was revealed by a disgruntled ex-employee? Even if the reporter doesn't know exactly who's behind the muffled voice on the phone, wouldn't it be better if consumers of the news were informed there's somebody in the mix with something to hide?
No, said a prominent Maine journalist, it wouldn't.
"When people call you, 70 to 80 percent of the time, they have some agenda, some ax to grind," said Rex Rhoades, executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal. "I don't feel that badly about not telling readers about them if we can confirm the information in different ways."
A lot of other editors and reporters told me the same thing. I won't mention their names, not to protect their identities, but to spare you the repetition. The point is, they all believe anonymous sources are OK, so long as they aren't mentioned in their stories.
"Surveys show people don't trust journalists," said Kara Matuszewski, a reporter at WCSH-TV in Portland and president of the Maine chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. "If people don't trust us, why should we add to it by using anonymous sources?"
How about because some important stories wouldn't get done otherwise?
I've already mentioned my piece on the impending collapse of the Maine daily newspaper industry. Nearly all the assertions made by my unnamed informant were corroborated by statistics or announcements of layoffs, but without that nameless person to point the way, I probably wouldn't have drawn all those pieces of hard evidence together. Taking that confidential figure out of the story would have left nothing but on-the-record rebuttals from newspaper executives. Readers could have been excused for wondering why I wrote the thing in the first place. (By the way, Down East doesn't have a policy on using unnamed sources, which left its editors in a somewhat uncomfortable position when they were criticized for allowing me to do so.)
An example that doesn't involve me: Starting in 2005, Lance Tapley wrote an award-winning series of investigative pieces for the Portland Phoenix on abuses in Maine's prisons, relying in part on unnamed sources within the corrections system. Without one of those informants, Tapley wouldn't have obtained videotaped evidence of prisoner mistreatment. How would he have explained to readers where he got the tape if he hadn't mentioned he had an anonymous source?
Or check out the fall 2007 issue of The Bollard, the print version of a Portland-based on-line news site. Stacy Mitchell's expos` on the pricing policies of the Whole Foods chain relies heavily on information from local growers of organic produce, none of whom would speak on the record for fear of losing their contracts with the store. Without those quotes - and Mitchell's solid follow-up reporting on the leads they provided - the story would have been reduced to little more than a bland consumer report comparing the cost of naturally grown cabbages.
In an e-mail, Bollard editor Chris Busby wrote that granting anonymity to sources was a key factor in getting the story. "Though I'd heard some vague grumbling about Whole Foods' dealings with local suppliers this past summer, it was a bar-stool comment by [a reporter for a mainstream publication] that really lit the fire under my ass to pursue this story. [The reporter] too had heard WF was marking up local products, but told me, `You'll never get that story. No one will talk to you.' I vowed … then that we'd get it, and we did. That's one of the big differences between The Bollard and [mainstream publications,] we know when it's appropriate to grant sources anonymity … [T]his story was theirs for the taking, but … I knew they wouldn't have the gumption to pursue it."
(For the record, I removed the reporter's name and affiliation from Busby's comments, because of my concern it might have an impact on that person's employment.)
Busby said his paper actually went beyond simply protecting the identities of those who asked not to be named. In one case, The Bollard kept the source of on-the-record comments secret. "[T]he local brewer quoted in our piece very much wanted to be named, but author Stacy Mitchell kept him anonymous," Busby wrote. "I questioned this at first glance, but Stacy rightly pointed out that naming suppliers who've had favorable experiences creates a dynamic by which WF could corner other suppliers by asking them why they did not provide positive comments. In this case, allowing one supplier to shed anonymity would compromise the protection given to others."
In spite of this evidence to the contrary, most Maine journalists I spoke with felt that the use of unnamed informants was rarely justified. "Attribution is the key word in this shop," said Jim Morris, news director at WABI-TV in Bangor.
"I would never say never, but that's what I would say is never," said Mary Brewer, managing editor of the Boothbay Register. But Brewer also added, "We don't do a lot of investigative reporting."
"If you work hard enough, you should be able to get the story almost any time without an anonymous source," said Steve Betts, editor of the Courier Gazette in Rockland. That "almost" is a key word. Betts said his paper used an unnamed informant earlier this summer in breaking the news that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts had suffered a seizure.
Speaking of seizures, Jeannine Guttman, editor of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram claimed in a 2004 column that anonymous sources result in a "disconnection from the reader." Guttman said she'd make an exception only for stories of great "gravity" or if "there is no other way to get that information."
Guttman's papers regularly publish national and international wire service stories that cite anonymous sources. On Sundays, the Telegram letter page carries comments from the paper's Web site, many of them unsigned or attributed to pen names and almost none of them meeting the "gravity" or "no other way to get that information" standards.
A.J. Higgins, who covered the State House and politics for the Bangor Daily News for many years and now does the same for Maine Public Radio, is one of the few working journalists who acknowledged that the trend away from citing confidential informants could be masking a tendency among Maine reporters and editors toward laziness.
"Saying you'll never use them avoids complicated issues that some anonymous sources bring to the table," Higgins said.
Higgins said that in the heady days after Watergate, he probably overused anonymous sources, but now limits them to cases where the informant has both important information and faces the threat of economic or physical harm if his or her identity were revealed.
Which seems like a reasonable standard. Even if it is a little old-fashioned. Because unrestrained use of nameless informants is a mainstay of the Web. News tips - some true, some otherwise - are posted constantly on sites such as As Maine Goes and Maine Indymedia, most with no indication of their authors' real identities or agendas.
As Maine Goes founder Scott Fish said journalists and politicians who ignore that information because it comes from unknown sources could be using anonymity as "an excuse not to enter into a discussion with people." He cited the Federalist Papers and the pamphleteers of colonial America as honorable antecedents of today's Internet gadflies.
When it comes to anonymous sources, Fish said, "I'm not sure what the big woof is."
I think he meant "whoop."
Nevertheless, Media Mutt concurs.
<I>Full disclosure department: Al Diamon's political column runs in both the Portland Phoenix and the Courier Gazette. He also used to work for Chris Busby at Casco Bay Weekly. If you thought he was too kind to any of them, now you know why. Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.</I>