Every good journalist knows the importance of collecting the name and credentials of their source. Breaking news is only powerful when there is someone to verify the information. Appeal to authority is paramount in the world of journalism, and this is especially so when it comes to big politics. But there are some stories that are too big to be dependent on names. As long as journalists have been pushing hot stories to the press, anonymous sources have been around to fuel the news fire.
When the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, the news broke the mold in what was to be understood as a political scandal. There is a reason that every political scandal since has taken on an aphorism nickname, from the NFL’s “deflategate” to Hillary’s “servergate.” Despite being one of the biggest political scandal’s to grace the front page in the twentieth century, this story did not break with validation from some unquestionable source. The anonymous informant went only by the name “Deep Throat,” and without exposing who they were started the unraveling of a scandal that took down an American Presidency.
Today, news sources of absolutely every caliber work with anonymous sources, as that is often the only condition under which information will be released. There are a lot of reasons as to why informants don’t want their names out there, from fear of losing their job or violent retribution, to simply wanting to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible.
While leaving a source as anonymous can create questioning as to the validity of the claim being made, news stories are published daily without names attached to where the information is coming from. This became especially evident in the early 2000s, when reported informants released information that contributed to the publics opinion regarding US involvement in the Middle East and what would become the Iraq war; information that was found to be flawed just a few short years later. Fast forward to the 2016 election and the “fake news” era that has marred much of 2017 and there are some who have started to question the value of anonymous sources at all. After all, if there is no name behind where the information comes from, can anyone trust that there is truth to what they say?
The answer to this question is yes. Anonymous sources are important to keeping the public informed to major issues going on inside of American politics, and have actually been shown in many contexts to be more truthful than an on-record source, thanks to the magnitude of the information that they often present. At the New York Times, anonymity is considered a last resort, something that reporters will turn to only when the story is fact-checked, when they have found the information to be relevant and necessary to the public, but when the source is not willing to come forward and put their name on paper. In a 2004 study (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/opinion/sunday/the-public-editor-the-disconnect-on-anonymous-sources.html) , the New York Times found that anonymous sources was the number one concern among readers. But to journalists, this is a red flag that shows that readers may be grabbing onto the wrong end of the horse. If anonymity is a last resort, then readers need to consider the process the journalist and the publishing newspaper went through to ensure that they were moving forward with a verified story. The fact that the source chooses to remain anonymous may actually speak to the merit of the story, as having a name on file will often shift the attention of the report from the subject itself to the source instead.
What readers need to keep in mind is that there are thousands of cited examples available of on-the-record interviews that contained mistruths, if not outright lies. Having a name on paper doesn’t necessarily mean that the source is being truthful. An on the record interview is just as likely to show a rhetorical line that is on par with what a corporation or political party has decided to put forward. Anonymous sources are part of our age of journalism, and have been proven over the years to carry definite value. The USA Today reports that they publish stories based on information with anonymous sources less than once per day, meaning that in the tens of thousands of articles published by the news source annually, just over 300 are based on anonymous sources.
In today’s news media, questioning the validity of any news article by cross checking sources and publishers is good practice, but in doing so you have to choose who you are going to trust. If reputable sources like the New York Times or the Washington Post are telling you the information is verified, then it may be worth looking into, even if the sources behind the headlines remain anonymous.
Written with Christina Sanchez