Here’s what we know: This news cycle is fueling the fire of the anonymous-source debate – and making Holly swear

Robert Redford, as Bob Woodward, waits in a parking garage to meet “Deep Throat,” his anonymous source, in “All the President’s Men”

G: Holly, did you see that New York Times story that ran just before Christmas that painted President Trump as a xenophobic racist?

According to the article, Trump once said in an Oval Office meeting that:

  • 15,000 immigrants coming to the U.S. from Haiti “all have AIDS.”
  • 40,000 Nigerian immigrants would never “go back to their huts” in Africa once they saw life in the U.S.

H: Ha! I better grab a fire extinguisher.
You know I saw it and it pissed me off. Just reminded me why there’s so much public hostility toward journalists. That “reporting” was based on two confidential sources. Tell me why I should believe it.

G: Got to admit, I get a chuckle out of listening to you swear at Anderson Cooper every time he mentions another story built on anonymous sources.

Let me put on my historian’s cap. For as long as there have been reporters, there have been whistleblowers and leakers. In the annals of journalism, unnamed informants have been sources for blockbuster news stories such as Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and Big Brother-style surveillance by our government.

By the way, I’m beyond geeked to see the portrayal of legendary whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg when “The Post” comes to the movie theaters next week.

H: I hope the new film is more exciting than “Good Night, and Good Luck,” (and that historian’s hat).

OK, there are justifications for the use of confidential sources — particularly in the current political climate — but this anecdote in the NYT story was not one of them.

G: That’s exactly how press secretary Sarah Sanders said she felt. She cited names of actual people who attended the meeting who “deny these outrageous claims” and said “… it’s both sad and telling the New York Times would print the lies of their anonymous ‘sources’ anyway.”

H: I’m swallowing real hard here, but I think she had a point — although calling them lies is also presumptuous. This looks more like hearsay, frankly. Our court system prohibits hearsay in trials, but it’s standard operating procedure in journalism. These stories based on unnamed sources just give ammunition to people who despise the so-called liberal media.

G: Valid points, all. I don’t mean to be argumentative, but history shows journalists sometimes need whistleblowers to reveal critical information that might otherwise remain a secret — abuse of power, for example. Without the cloak of confidentiality, these sources would not come forward. In some instances, they risk their lives. In others, they risk being fired or going to jail. 

H: Keep in mind, that anonymous sources often have motives other than exposing corruption and abuse of power. In some cases, they may be simply settling a score.

I tell students that stories based on anonymous sources should set off alarm bells in their heads. They should always ask: Who’s the source? Why should I believe them?

Perry Bacon Jr. wrote an excellent two-part readers’ guide to anonymous sources on FiveThirtyEight. He points out — as you said — major investigative pieces are often impossible to write without unnamed sources. So it looks like – she said, as she threw in the towel – we’re stuck with them. The least we can do is arm ourselves with the information we need to evaluate them — read Bacon’s piece, for starters — and hold the media – as well as the White House – accountable accordingly.

Society of Professional Journalists statement on the use of anonymous sources 

Associated Press statement on anonymous sources


3 comments On Here’s what we know: This news cycle is fueling the fire of the anonymous-source debate – and making Holly swear

  • This is something that really annoys me. Not the use of anonymous sources, because they’re needed, but the consistency and volume of their usage in daily reporting. The Times had another big Trump expose not too long ago (different from the one above) that cited “60 sources inside and outside the administration” and only a handful of them were named. Additionally, it didn’t do much to specify which of these sources were “inside” or “outside” and didn’t even cite specifics about their job roles or departments. What’s the standard for being one of those 60 sources, then? I think one simple improvement would be to no longer allow the words “according to a person familiar with… (X person’s thinking, the conversation, White House operations, etc) to be written without further qualifying info about how and why that person is familiar.

  • I remember reading … way back … that Post editors would insist the reporters put the name of the anonymous source in a sealed envelope. I can’t find that now but I’m going to go back through Bradlee’s “A Good Life” and see if it’s in there. I’d never heard two source rule you mention, but it seems like such a good idea. Of course, how would you explain that to the reader … in a note?

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