Anonymous Sources are Degrading Journalism, and Government Accountability

February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

It’s one of the sexiest things in journalism: The anonymous source. It conjures images of late-night meetings in parking garages, voice modulators and intrigue. The fact that someone feels the need to be protected makes their information feel more valuable.

It’s also something you’re not going to see much of in my work or on my social media feeds. A couple weeks ago, I decided to stop sharing any news stories containing unwarranted use of anonymous sources. Yes, “unwarranted” is incredibly hard to define. Where exactly is the balance between public interest and a source’s request for protection? What does a story have to expose to justify that protection? What harm might have come if the story was never published for lack of an on-the -record source? I fully acknowledge and expect that I will get this wrong from time to time, but the point of the exercise isn’t to have a perfect set of answers every time I read a news article – the point is to ask critical questions of the news I consume, and think critically about how I allow that news to inform my worldview.

Like a lot of news readers, I’ve become less and less skeptical of anonymous sources. If I tripped over every quote from an unnamed source, unsure of who to trust, I’d never get to the bottom of a national security story again. I’ve begun reading “senior administration official” or “senior agency official” the same way I’d read it if it was a named source: I take the information in and use it to inform my understanding of the world.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not the same. Anonymous sources fundamentally shift the way audiences interact with news sources, and they shift accountability away from government officials (the vast majority of anonymously sourced stories I read come from coverage of the U.S. Government and U.S. national politics) and onto news outlets.

Think about it.

Article 1 reads:

“We’re confident the program is working,” said John Smith, director of strategic programs for the agency.

Article 2 reads:

“We’re confident the program is working,” said a senior agency official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss active programs.

The journalist in Article 1 is asking for a very basic level of trust from the reader: I trust you as a journalist to accurately report a quote, name and job title from a government official. If the reader uses the information in Article 1 to reach the conclusion that the program in question is successful, then the reader is also placing trust in John Smith, and in the government to hire a “director of strategic programs” who is qualified and capable in that job.

In Article 1, the reader’s trust in the success of a government program is placed in a clearly defined system, and in an accountable, public employee responsible for that government program. The reader’s perception of the government is formed by consuming journalism that serves as a conduit of information. A reader doesn’t have to place trust in the journalist or news organization to make any qualitative assessments of anything. If the government program in question turns out to be a failure, the reader could be justifiably upset with John Smith for misrepresenting the program, but not with the news outlet (at least based on that line in the story) for documenting what Smith said.

The dynamics are fundamentally different in Article 2.

In order for a reader to reach a conclusion about the government program described in Article 2, that reader must trust the journalist and news outlet a great deal: I trust you to choose a government official with an appropriate level of knowledge and involvement with the government program in question, and I trust you to choose an official whose assessment of the program is free of unpredictable bias or influence.

If the reader uses the information in Article 2 to reach the conclusion that the program in question is successful, that conclusion is based on the completely (and necessarily, if anonymous sources are to be protected) untransparent methodology that the journalist used in choosing the source. What if that government official doesn’t know anything about the program in question? What if that government official is lying? What if the program is a failure?

If any of those things turn out to be true, there is no one for the public to hold accountable for the program’s failure. The reader could be justifiably upset only with the journalist who interviewed the wrong official, or trusted a liar to tell the truth. No government official is on the record making false statements, and the public has misplaced its trust in journalism, not in government.

In short, Article 1 holds sources accountable for the claims they make, and readers outraged by false claims know exactly where to direct their outrage. Article 2 holds no one accountable for false claims they make, and readers outraged by false claims can only direct their outrage at journalists.

Viewed through this lens, the strong negative sentiment toward journalists in the United States makes sense in some ways. Anonymous sources helped propel the United States into war, and the effects of that war are still playing out. People are frustrated that government isn’t serving them as they should, yet Washington journalists insist on creating an accountability screen – a wall of secrecy that prevents people from understanding who is really speaking on behalf of the government, and prevents people from holding those officials accountable when things don’t work right.

I haven’t had to look far to see how these dynamics play out in practice. When The Washington Post published a story claiming that Russian hackers had infiltrated the U.S. electric grid and citing an unnamed government official, they were wrong. But because they refused to give up the source that gave them the bad information, no one was held accountable for causing a national security scare without evidence.

None of the above is to say there aren’t very valid, responsible uses of anonymous sourcing. The Washington Post serves as a great example of that, too. Perhaps the most famous unnamed source in history, Deep Throat, helped the paper expose President Richard Nixon’s corruption. We don’t yet have the perspective of history on this story from last Thursday, which led to the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Still, I see that story as one that has serious implications, quite possibly would not be published without anonymous sourcing, and contained information important to Congress and the public as they assess the Trump administration’s relationship with the Russian government.

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