Let’s talk for a minute about anonymous sources.
Reliance for news reports on people who don’t want to be identified has been very much in the news over the past week.
We thought you might be interested in how your local newspaper handles anonymous sources, and a little bit about what we know about how other news organizations handle them.
First, let’s agree that named sources are best. When someone is willing to be identified as the source of a report, the reader can usually be more confident about that report, and might be better able to understand it.
But anonymous sources have a legitimate role in credible journalism.
There are times when people — usually people “on the inside” — have information so important that it must be reported. These individuals feel the dual pull of loyalty to their organization and duty to their communities — or their countries.
They risk retribution — plus losing their jobs or even their careers — if they are identified.
When an individual in this position picks up the phone and contacts a journalist, he or she has determined that the value of the information to the public outweighs self-preservation or the needs of any one organization.
It’s not a decision made lightly.
Readers should realize that the identity of the source is not unknown to the reporter. It’s just not reported. In our experience, the source’s identity is also known by the reporter’s editor, and possibly others in the news organization.
That’s certainly the rule at The Beacon. If the phone rings in our newsroom and the caller says, “I live near the mayor, and the mayor beats his dog. I don’t want to give my name,” and then hangs up, what happens?
Not much. Probably nothing.
Oh, we might glance at public records to see if the mayor has ever been arrested for animal abuse. The reporter covering that city might casually ask the mayor about his or her pets.
But going forward with a news report would require much more than a whispered tip: identification of the source; investigation of the source’s position, credibility and possible motivation; confirmation from others who would have knowledge of the information being reported, and so on.
Readers should also realize that in newsrooms small and large, the responsibility to inform the public is taken very seriously. Only if the public is informed can democracy function.
And, only if the veracity of what we report is maintained can we earn and keep the trust that is necessary for our survival.
News organizations will have their specialties and their perspectives, they will make mistakes (and admit them), but to deliberately report “fake news” is a path to self-destruction. It makes no sense.
The public’s right to be informed is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s how necessary it is.
You can count on The Beacon — and responsible news organizations across the land — to protect your right to know, and your right to tell.