Don’t quote me on this but…
Reporters have been using anonymous sources to obtain information the public might not hear otherwise probably since the start of a free press. But half of people asked in a recent poll by Politico and the polling firm Morning Consult did not approve of the practice while only a third thought it was OK. Another 44 percent took an even dimmer view and thought that reporters were probably just making unnamed sources up.
So why do reporters, especially those covering politics, grant some sources anonymity and how do they do it? And what about those terms we see or hear like “off the record,” “not for attribution,” “on background,” or the ominous-sounding “on deep background.”
You Had Better Be Sure About This…
There’s a surprising amount of agreement between people who disapprove of reporters using anonymous sources and the reporter’s bosses. Editors generally see it as their professional duty to hold officials accountable and it’s hard to do that without names attached. But if the information is important enough, is in the public interest, and the source as well as the reporter are known to be reliable they’ll agree to withhold the source’s identity. The point is, it’s done selectively and to fulfill the news organization’s duty to inform the public.
One of the best-known examples of an anonymous source is The Washington Post’s use of “Deep Throat” while reporting the Watergate scandal. Without those revelations over a period of many months the story might never have been more than a “third-rate burglary” instead of scandal that brought down a President. Years later after FBI Associate Director Mark Felt confirmed he was the source some observers speculated that Felt was motivated by everything from patriotism to revenge for having been passed over to lead the FBI.
What About Those Sources?
As we saw with Mark Felt there can be a wide range of motivations from political differences to personal disputes to patriotic duty. News users might think that that’s unfair or wrong but as Felt and other examples have shown, only time can be the judge. At minimum, our democratic system – including a free press – is working in its typically messy way.
Is That Like Double-Secret Probation?
Not naming a source is one tool that reporters use selectively. But we also hear terms like “off the record” or “not for attribution,” “on background,” and so forth. You’re more apt to hear them on a TV political drama than in real life. In most cases they have the same well-defined meaning as “double-secret probation,” which is to say there are no universally agreed upon definitions for these terms.
The default approach with any journalist is that if you don’t want them to report a certain thing, you don’t tell them that certain thing. But if the circumstances justify it they may agree with some sources to use a version of those terms only after negotiating exactly what’s intended. For example, the meaning of “off the record” can range from “you cannot use this information” to “you didn’t hear this from me.” That would be settled up front.
Good or bad? Yes.
Journalists have a professional and ethical duty to cultivate and at least listen to their sources to evaluate if and how to use the information they provide. News users have to decide for themselves whether we’re better off with access to information that comes from unnamed sources or better off without it.