Anonymous Is Not a Dirty Word
by Al Diamon
The name of the game: Contrary to popular opinion, there’s no rule in journalism that bans the use of anonymous sources. There are, however, some guidelines prudent reporters and editors should use in deciding when comments from people who don’t want their names in print, online or on the air are appropriate to disseminate.
Earlier this week, both the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News cited anonymous sources in their stories about a controversial comment Republican Gov. Paul LePage made at a private fundraiser on August 12. According to at least two unnamed individuals, LePage said President Obama “hates white people.” (My own anonymous sources told me what the governor said was closer to “really doesn’t like white people,” but I have no way of knowing whose sources have better memories).
Both papers came under attack online and in a dozen e-mails I received (some from journalists) for basing their stories on people who refused to be identified.
This criticism is nonsense.
Spiking an article of this nature simply because the sources have good reason not to want their names in print is an abdication of the press’s responsibility to deliver accurate information to the public. Just because what an anonymous source has to say is certain to generate controversy is no reason to self-censor. If there’s solid reason to believe the facts are correct, they should be reported, regardless of sourcing.
That said, there are some sensible limits on when anonymous sources should be used.
Anonymity should never be a shortcut for lazy reporters. Just because someone told a journalist something on the sly doesn’t mean somebody else won’t say it on the record. Do a thorough check before relying solely on an unnamed informant.
A single anonymous source is usually not enough, unless the reporter is absolutely certain of his or her credibility. Two good sources who have had no chance to collaborate usually are sufficient.
The anonymous source’s agenda should be examined carefully. If a reporter can’t determine exactly why the leaker is doing this leaking, there may be good reason to doubt the information’s veracity and completeness.
The nameless person should have a good reason for not wanting to be named and that reason should be in the story. If the source won’t explain why he or she won’t go on the record (threat of job loss, danger of reprisals, etc.), the information is suspect.
The stories in the Portland and Bangor papers appear to meet these standards.
I use anonymous sources in this column on occasion, when it’s the only way to get the story and when naming names would cost people their livelihoods. I try not to do it any more often than is absolutely necessary. But when it is necessary, I don’t have any qualms about it.
I suspect many of those attacking the Press Herald and Bangor Daily have political – rather than ethical – reasons for doing so. They would prefer to ignore an unpleasant fact (LePage really did say something offensive) because it clashes with their ideology. To get around what they don’t want to acknowledge, they are raising a phony issue.
And just so we’re clear, that’s on the record.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Daily Bulldog, some Mainely Media weeklies and some Current Publishing papers. He also writes columns for a couple of Current’s magazines. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.