Few things incite or inspire more blowback than the use of anonymous sources. To be fair, this is a long debate in the journalistic community.
In March 2009, the New York Times‘ public editor wrote: “The Times has a tough policy on anonymous sources, but continues to fall down in living up to it. That’s my conclusion after scanning a sampling of articles published in all sections of the paper since the first of the year.”
The Vanguard uses this industry standard as a guideline, but while acknowledging that best practices would compel the newsgatherer to seek out information provided by the anonymous source and get on-the-record confirmations, given our limitations as an organization primarily staffed by one person, we often lack the time and resources to do this.
Like the New York Times, NPR expresses in their guidelines that their “strong preference is to have sources stay ‘on the record.’ ” Moreover, “Before any such information is reported, reporters must make every reasonable effort to get it on the record – if not from that source, then from somewhere else.”
Therefore, they use “information from anonymous sources to tell important stories that otherwise would go unreported.”
At the same time, we believe our value is in pushing for information that would otherwise go unreported.
The decision as to when to use anonymous sources is not done in a capricious manner.
First of all, the Vanguard receives many tips each year from people who do not identify themselves. Most of those tips are followed up on, few if any actually become part of the news.
In fact, we spend a good deal of time debunking charges that appear to be salacious, but unprovable.
Really there are two categories of anonymous sources that we use on a regular basis. One is from government actors – sometimes whistle blowers within government, sometimes elected officials – people that everyone would consider a credible source, who, for a variety of reasons, cannot go on the record.
Usually we do not simply accept those opinions as fact, however. Sometimes we have to go through layers to prove up the claims.
In assessing credibility, it is important to understand the motivation one has for bringing forth the information and the trustworthiness of the individual. In the end, that comes down to a subjective judgment. But the critical point is that the Vanguard reports on information from anonymous sources who are credible and trustworthy, who the average reader would consider credible and trustworthy, on issues for whom the information vitally advances the story.
To give a reasonable example, the Vanguard has received information about the JPA from a source that is close to the JPA. Some of that information contradicts what the public view has been of the city on the issue of the DBO and the possibility that Davis could opt for a Design-Build process at this stage.
The source could not go on the record for a variety of reasons, however, the information, we believe is, absolutely accurate and necessary information. The irony is one of the people objecting to that report was in the direct position to have very easily confirmed it, but for whatever reason chose not to do so and instead chose to use the opportunity to snipe at our decision to report this information.
We would have liked to have had the chance to confirm the information before we reported it, but there are also time constraints, and the one person who had the ability to confirm the report was unavailable, at least to the Vanguard, for a week.
It was a tough decision. In the end, we felt that the need to get that information out, as the WAC was going to be making determinations on which project to choose, was the most important consideration.
The other time when we use anonymous sources are for expert opinions. This is actually a quite unfortunate nature of reporting, at times. Ideally, you would like to cultivate experts who are free to offer their expertise in evaluating a given scenario.
However, there are fields where doing so mean that you put business interests or professional relationships at risk. Some industries are small enough that everyone knows everyone else, and harming those relationships could harm one’s business.
This is an unfortunate situation, but also necessary to evaluate public process sometimes. There are some basic guidelines we use. First, is the individual an expert in the field? Second, does the information provided advance the story? Third, would the typical reader consider the individual a credible source if their identity was known? And finally, can we get the information in a way that the person is not placed on the public record or from another source?
These are all difficult questions. We do not use anonymous sources frequently. But we believe that sometimes they are necessary.
To this end the Vanguard has developed its Guiding Principles.
The section on transparency covers anonymous sourcing:
We write: The Vanguard operates in an open and transparent manner. We will attribute information we receive from others, making it clear to our audience when the information is derived from other sources and when the Vanguard learns that information firsthand. Sources of information should be appropriately attributed. In order to report stories that promote transparency and open government, and expose corruption or wrongdoing, it becomes necessary to use information from anonymous sources. We must determine to our satisfaction whether the source is credible and reliable, and whether there is objective justification for using the source’s information without attribution.
When using anonymous sources there are several things that are of critical importance. First, there should be no anonymous attacks on other people. Second, while the name may be withheld, any time that they are withheld completely or in portion, the Vanguard will make it clear. Even within anonymous sourcing, the Vanguard will provide as much information as we can about the anonymous individual or individuals. When we attribute information to anonymous sources, it is assumed that these are our sources and that we have obtained the information firsthand from them.
Hope that helps.
—David M. Greenwald reporting