From the Editor: Use of anonymous sources sometimes a moral choice for journalists, seldom an easy one


PUNGO — There is discussion of anonymous sources on the national scene, which is timely because I made a decision to use an unidentified source in a story published earlier this month in an edition of The Independent News.

In our case, comments by a specific patient helped by volunteer rescue personnel are quoted without the use of that person’s name. Some facts and statements were withheld, too, to shield the identity of the patient. 

I witnessed these events during a ride-along with two volunteer rescue members, who are identified by name throughout the story. Anonymity of patients was a condition of the ride-along, which makes obvious sense for the city and their role of trust in providing medical care to citizens. 

But my judgment was at play, too. Ultimately, I decide what to publish here, not the city.

I decided that the use of an unnamed source was important because the interaction between the rescue personnel and the patient speaks to the character of those who volunteer to help their neighbors. The patient was not in a position to consent to the use of her name, which I normally would have sought. It was not practical to do so amid care, though I identified myself as a reporter to a family member and a neighbor.

This is a small example of how journalists use unnamed or anonymous sources in their work to tell a news or feature story, provide news of public value they cannot secure otherwise or provide context to other information that is sourced to a named speaker. We make decisions like this from time to time. Hopefully, we decide these things well.

President Trump’s recent criticism of the news media has focused in part on the use of anonymous sources, many of which – but not all of which – have been critical of his young administration.

These complaints come with a seasoning of salt because there is documentation that Trump and his administration provide information anonymously to the press. Indeed, Trump was known in his New York real estate days to fabricate a source to advance his business interests. He sometimes pretended to be his own public relations person.

Still, the president’s criticism contains a kernel of truth. Journalists should address it with audiences when they make a decision to use an anonymous source, whatever the reason for doing so. Reasons matter.

Anonymous sourcing can be problematic and signal lazy reporting when anonymity is not explained. Overuse damages necessary use. Anonymity should be used to show a reader something that cannot be shown by other means. As such, explaining why the anonymous source is necessary to the story should be part of the journalist’s work.

The Virginian-Pilot, our region’s largest and most important newsroom, is guided by an ethics policy that limits the use of anonymous sources but acknowledges that providing newsworthy information sometimes depends upon granting anonymity.

The policy also lays out why such sources sometimes are necessary to journalists.

“Government agencies and private institutions at national, state and local levels are increasingly secretive and inclined to refuse access to information,” the policy states, in part. “That places a greater burden on news organizations to find alternative – and sometimes anonymous – sources of information.”

People who may fear for their lives sometimes provide information about conditions within a brutal regime in foreign affairs reporting. People within a municipal institution may fear for their jobs yet feel compelled to discuss misconduct or issues that are not being described fully in public.

Other people may face personal abuse, loss of employment or community reprisal for sharing unpopular views or damaging information. There are many reasons.

At The Independent News, we are guided by our own ethics policy, which you can review in full at I value attribution, identifying the source of information in a way that means readers understand the relationship of sources to the material under discussion. Named sources usually are required. Contributors, including me, avoid unnamed and anonymous sources except in rare situations that I, as the editor, approve, and we, as journalists, explain.

When a president suggests constraints on a press that reflects the implications of his policies and pronouncements, we should consider why that might be his position. Anonymous sources generally are not used by responsible journalists except when they illuminate the public business. 

In the story I mentioned, the use of an unnamed source does not damn anyone but shows us our better angels at work. Sometimes, out of fear or danger or inability to provide consent, identities must be shielded. The ways we engage in our speech has much to do with the character of those speaking. Clear explanation of why sources are anonymous helps readers understand our character.

Sometimes speaking on behalf of those who cannot identify themselves is not nefarious but moral. I realize speech, like morality, can be an awfully tricky business. Yet it is not ethical for a powerful person to demand that a free press should simply destroy a tool because it can be or has been misused by some. 

Or because some people, particularly the powerful, simply do not like what they are hearing.

Thanks for reading.

© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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