This is a question many journalists, especially investigative journalists, are faces with.
An anonymous source is someone a reporter interviews but is not named in the actual story. One of the reasons is that they may fear losing their job. Another reason is that t may fear for their lives or their family. They may want to provide the information but don’t want the people they are talking about to find out the information came from them.
But there are also many problems and concerns with anonymous sources.
One: readers might question their credibility. Two: their reasoning may be to push their personal agenda. Three: descriptions used instead could be misleading.
But sometimes they are the only key to unlocking the true to a big story.
The most famous anonymous source is “Deep Throat.” He was the source Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used to help them uncover the Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration.
Watergate was the major political scandal that occurred in the 70s in the United States after a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and President Nixon‘s administration’s attempt to cover-up its involvement.
Through their investigation and discoveries, they were able to connect Nixon to the burglary. Further investigation of Nixon was done which lead to Nixon’s resignation.
Two years after the burglary and two months before his resignation, Woodward and Bernstein released their book, All the President’s Men. The book details the investigation by Woodward and Bernstein from the initial reporting of the Watergate burglary to realization that Nixon was involved.
The book names sources, such as Hugh Sloan, who were not identified in their initial articles. It also gives detailed accounts of Woodward’s meeting with “Deep Throat,” whose identity was unknown for 30 years
Woodward promised him that he would never reveal his identity.
“Deep Throat” provided them with many tips and important information during their investigation. And like all journalists should do, they always tried to check his information with information other sources had given them.
When using anonymous sources it is important to keep them anonymous. Not doing so could result in a law suit. Also, the information from anonymous sources should be verified. This can be done by talking to other sources.
While anonymous sources are a must in some cases and can prove to be extremely useful, it may not always be the wisest choice.
There have been many cases when news organization used anonymous sources in their reporting and it has backfired. Which is why many, like the Times, are now choosing to use them sparingly.
The Associated Press lists several standards and practices regarding anonymous sources. They list three rules for material provided by anonymous sources:
- The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
- The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
- The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.
Before using an anonymous source, you should always get approval to do so. Also, if the sources is approved, the managing editor must know the identity of the source. The source’s identity must be kept confidential.
Although anonymous sources may not be used as often as they used to be, they are still important in investigative stories, especially those involving politics.
Remember… the Watergate scandal would never have been reported without the use of anonymous sources. Using anonymous sources doesn’t equal to bad reporting. Only use them when it is absolutely necessary to.