Lately it seems as though there’s a story a day reporting some new Trump administration scandal based on a leak from an anonymous government “official.” We are asked to take the facts in those stories on trust, without a chance to evaluate the veracity or motives of the source of the remarks. This over-reliance on the anonymous source gives both the journalist and his/her informant an overwhelming power.

The most famous anonymous source of them all, of course, was Deep Throat of Watergate fame. He was not only a seminal figure in Nixon’s denouement (and thus a hero to liberals everywhere), but he was so renowned that he had his own nickname, taken from a popular porn flick. The reporters involved in the story became famous too; Bob Woodward was played by movie star Robert Redford and Carl Bernstein by Dustin Hoffman in the film “All the Presidents Men.”

Here’s an article from American Journalism Review (written way back in 1994) that describes the role of Watergate as a turning point in the use of the anonymous source:

Although confidential sources predate Watergate, they were infrequently used before that celebrated story, which produced the most famous unnamed source of all time. Deep Throat, whose identity remains a mystery [at the time the article was written], helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon in 1974. After that, the use of anonymous sources flourished, with many reporters considering it sexier to have an unnamed source than a named one.

From the same 1994 article, we have this:

There’s not a place for anonymous sources,” says Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today and chairman of the Freedom Forum. “I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.

Mr. Neuharth is departed now, and the idea of banning anonymously sourced articles doesn’t seem very popular among journalists covering the Trump administration. But even before the reporting on Trump, readers were somewhat displeased with the increasing use of the anonymous source. In 2005, the journalism institute Poynter reported on research on reader opinions about its use:

The APME [Associated Press and Associated Press Managing Editors] reviewed comments from 1,611 readers in 42 states, who were asked to describe how anonymous sources affect their trust in the news. Most readers were willing to leave them in the reporter’s toolbox, and many said the media simply couldn’t cover important stories without being able to protect people in vulnerable positions. Still, 44 percent said anonymity makes them less likely to believe what they read, consistently invoking one descriptive phrase: the double-edged sword…

Other responses to the survey suggested ways to make newspaper policies stronger.

Go out of your way to point out anonymity, so readers at least have the opportunity to weigh credibility.

Always report why the source requested to remain unnamed (unless such information would lead to identification).

Always connect the source to the story. Why is he or she in a position to know?

Only use anonymous sources as supplementary material, not as the primary peg for a story.

In the case of a consistent source, offer a “batting average.” Describe how often the source has been right in the past.

Discuss all of the possible motives for this source to be giving you information. Consider explaining those motives in the story.

If an anonymous source gives you bad information, burn the source.

Do everything possible to independently verify the information from your source. If there’s no corroborating evidence, tell your readers. Or better yet, just hold the story, because the public is willing to wait if it means reporting will be more trustworthy.

In the years since, these suggestions certainly don’t appear to have been followed. In April of 2014, almost 10 years after that study, Poynter published a speech given by John Christie, editor in chief of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, in which he discussed the reasons for the rise in the use of anonymous sources. Here are some excerpts:

Many sources hide behind anonymity to take cheap shots without anyone knowing they have an axe to grind or a dog in the fight.

…the frequent and often unnecessary use of anonymous sources reinforces the mistrust readers already have for journalists…

The tragedy of the overuse of anonymous source reporting is that we in the business have known for decades that we are abusing it; have known for decades that readers abhor it; and have promised for decades that we are going to toss this false god into the abyss.

The entire piece is well worth reading.

In 2014, when the talk was written, Christie mentioned that the public editors (ombudsmen) at the NY Times claimed to be trying to get the paper to cut back on the use of such sources. As one might imagine, the issue has not gone away. The current public editor at the Times, Liz Spayn, wrote an article in February of 2017, during the early days of the Trump administration, in response to many reader complaints about the increasing use of anonymous sources. Despite those complaints, it’s hard to see anything in the tone of Spayn’s piece that would make a disgruntled reader think that the Times has any intention of changing its approach.

Spayn does concede, however, that the paper:

…doesn’t make a priority of telling readers more about sources’ motives and about their proximity to the information they claim to know something about. On motive: Is the person trying to stop a policy from going forward, perhaps, or trying to get it approved? On credibility: Was the source actually in the meeting where decisions were made, or did he or she hear about it thirdhand? It isn’t always possible for reporters to provide this information, but not enough time is spent trying.

And with that I think we can agree: not enough time is spent trying. And what motivation would they have to do so? The stories are too tempting, and the anonymous sources too eager to spill the beans on the White House—which is occupied by a man named Donald Trump, whose election the Times editors have uniformly opposed. If Watergate was the template, remember how Watergate ended: with a Republican president being driven from office in disgrace.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]

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