Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander shows that he does not understand the economics of anonymous sources.
Alexander gives two reasons why reporters provide anonymity to sources:
- “Without them, readers would be deprived of important disclosures about official corruption, misconduct, high-level policy debates or diplomatic disputes.”
- The source will not provide the information without a guarantee of anonymity.
These justifications are self-serving, both to the reporter and to the source.
The first explanation, which purportedly limits anonymity to “important” information, fails for several reasons. It never defines what is “important,” and thus it is no different from “whatever will sell newspapers.” It makes no distinction between information that never should be kept secret (“official corruption, misconduct”) and information that often should be kept confidential (“high-level policy debates or diplomatic disputes”). Alexander’s explanation thus reduces to a simple maxim: if disclosure plausibly sells newspapers or enhances the prestige of the reporter, it is important enough to disclose.
The second explanation shifts all ethical responsibility to the source. This includes the reporter’s ethical responsibility to be cognizant of, and reveal to readers, sources’ motives for seeking anonymity. The Society of Professional Journalists says reporters should “[i]dentify sources whenever feasible,” because “[t]he public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability. As Alexander notes, this is not the standard actually practiced at the Washington Post.
What are sources’ motives for insisting on anonymity? Here are a few:
- To become more important without being held accountable.
- To undermine others, or others’ policies, without being held accountable.
- To disclose what, in the source’s opinion, should not be hidden, without bearing the costs.
- To protect oneself from reporters’ propensity to lie, mislead, and prevaricate, if that’s what it takes to get information.
The first two motives have private value to reporters and their newspapers, but no social value. It is difficult to construct an ethical justification for either of them. In the first instance, reporters prey upon sources’ desire to be personally more important, often with disingenuous appeals to high moral standards. In the second instance, sources are interested parties who have known, and sometimes ulterior, motives. Reporters reward these ulterior motives when they confer anonymity without acknowledging them, and if they did acknowledge them many of these sources would dry up.
The third motive is frequently but not always legitimate. And this legitimacy depends only on the judgment of the source as to what “should” not be hidden. Reporters rarely explore for the benefit of their readers the factors that underlie their sources’ judgments, and even less frequently care about sources’ ethical calculations. Reporters’ interest always lies in favor of disclosure, so everything is important enough to disclose. There are no penalties for disclosing too much information.
The fourth motive is taboo among reporters. The SPJ says it is unethical to practice certain forms of deceit to obtain information, but only certain forms–such as “misleading re-enactments or staged news events” and “undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information.” And there is an exception to this last ethical prohibition: it is okay to use “undercover or other surreptitious methods” when “traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” There are no external standards for defining what is “vital,” so this exception is both highly elastic and subject to each reporter’s own judgment.
Nowhere in the SPJ code of ethics does it say that reporters should not lie, mislead, or prevaricate to obtain information: “Here are the claims I’ve been told about you/your boss/your boss’s policies. I don’t think they are true, but if you don’t rebut them I will be compelled to use them.” In other walks of life, these methods would be deemed extortion. When faced with journalistic extortion, people who are knowledgeable, but inclined not to reveal what they know, may do so anyway under condition of anonymity, to counteract the reporter’s threat.
Neutral Source relies on confidential information, often supplied by government employees. We handle this information two ways. First, we may disclose this information only if it is subject to a recognized external standard for public disclosure but has been withheld. To be concrete, a disclosed government analysis may have been edited to render it false or misleading. In such a case, we would disclose the information and protect the identify of the source. If the information is deliberative or legally protected from public disclosure, we will not disclose it. We do not substitute our judgment for the law.
Second, when we obtain confidential information that could satisfy the disclosure test above, we verify it first. We do not rely on the opinions or judgments of our sources. We trust but verify.