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For me, it is difficult to say that an anonymous source should or should not be used. I don’t think one should be used unless it can be backed up by someone on the record, but as in the case of the University of Michigan football, I also understand why it was more difficult to find students to speak freely to a reporter. If the goal of the source is to just create drama and hype, there is no need to use him or her. However, if they honestly want to help a cause or expose a wrong, I think that should be taken into consideration.
On that note, it was appropriate to use anonymous sources for the UM football story. If all of the students, including on-the-record alumni, had matching stories with enough specifics to dispel any doubts that they might be collaborating for a different reason, it would be foolish to disregard what they say.
The other stories are more difficult for me to determine if the sources were appropriate. While the idealist part of my brain wants to think that the sources and reporters had honest intentions, I tend to have less patience for political scandals. Honestly, they annoy me, and that bias makes me more inclined to say that the reporters should have kept digging until they found sources to go on record to confirm everything that was said to them behind closed doors. No matter how many anonymous sources a reporter can find, if he or she can’t find a single person to stand up and tell the truth out loud, something is wrong with the story.
When – if ever – do you think it’s appropriate to use anonymous sources? Why?
When a source’s reputation is on the line or he or she may be in danger somehow by their name being leaked to the press, I think it is OK for an anonymous source to be used.
What guidelines do you think an editor should have for using anonymous sources? Do you think the anonymous source use in the U-M football story, the John Edwards story, the Afghanistan and Paterson stories (mentioned in the Kurtz column was appropriate? Why or why not?
I think an editor should definitely use anonymous sources sparingly and with caution. Sure, the idea of not printing a person’s name is probably in the best interest of the person themselves, but what about everyone else involved in the story? If a story questions credibility, who’s to say readers won’t believe the other quotes or other pieces that author has written. Anonymous sources are tricky. They’re obviously there to protect, but they could also be harmful. I think that in the cases involving the U of M story and the John Edwards story names should have been cited, or the quotes should have been emitted all together.
Have you read a story with anonymous sources that made you question its credibility?
I can’t think of a story off the top of my head when an anonymous source was cited and I questioned its credibility. I think though, that if I would come across an article with the name of the person speaking not given, it would be odd and I would wonder as to why they were not quoted properly and depending on the context and story line, the quote and maybe story itself might be hard to believe or repeat.
Often times stories that appear in tabloids or celebrity gossip magazines include a lot of stories with anonymous sources. Most of the time, the stories later turn out to be false, and the fact the reporter can’t supply a source may lead a lot of people to believe that the sources aren’t reliable, or even real. Names of sources reassure the reader that the information is valid, so in most cases, I think it is best to use names and prove their significance in the story.
However, I do think there are some situations in which it is best to let the sources remain anonymous. The U-M football story is a perfect example. The players felt it was important to report the situation, but didn’t necessarily want to risk their good relationship with the program. Certain cases can be damaging to a person’s personal life, and I think in a case like this, it’s important for the newspaper to understand that and remain sensitive to a person providing them with information.
The John Edwards story is different kind of situation. To me, that story is less credible simply because of its content rather than its sources. Even if the leaked information came from a reliable source, how important is it for the public to know it? Even if Rielle Hunter’s child is does belong to Edwards, and he does intend to marry her, what new issues does it raise? It only further damages his reputation (which was already somewhat damaged when the story of his affair first leaked) and embarrasses his wife. While there’s a new twist to the story, it doesn’t really change anything, at least not now. So to drag such an embarrassing story out again, without credible sources and information to back it up, seems pointless.
I think editors should have certain guidelines they use when determining whether to use anonymous sources or not. It may be a good idea for the paper (or station, etc.) as a whole to have certain guidelines on the subject, but if it doesn’t, an editor should probably draw a few lines of his or her own. In the last blog assignment, the question was asked, “What’s okay to print?” And most people basically said, “An editor should use his or her best judgment.” And the same rule applied. Some cases get very tricky, and it can be tough, so if there isn’t a strict rule to be implemented, each case should be carefully looked at. An editor needs to ask in every case, especially sensitive ones, “Is the source really providing solid and accurate information that creates or adds to a story?” The editor must then determine how essential names are to the credibility of the source and the story as a whole, and what’s best for the public, the source, and the people involved.
The fact is anonymous sources can plummet a newspaper’s credibility. There are certain instances when an anonymous source can be reliable like in U-M story. This is a story where college football players put in nine hours per day, breaking the NCAA-set maximum of four hours per day. This is a case that doesn’t appear to be gossip like the John Edwards scandal. If your story sounds more like gossip, don’t publish it or find a source who is willing to talk. From a reader’s standpoint, the newspaper could use an average Joe as their source just to manipulate the media coverage.
Also in the Afghanistan story, I don’t believe it’s the newspaper fault for publishing something confidential. If one person hears about it everyone will hear it somehow, and if it’s news the newspaper is obligated to cover it. At the same time, who ever leaked out that information is in the wrong because the information could have compromised the safety of the troops. In the Paterson story, I don’t believe that there is no white or black area to follow, mainly grey. I guess, in a story like this I typically don’t make it all the way through because something seems fishy to me.
I don’t remember specifics on unnamed sources, but whenever I read the newspaper, and I feel like something is gossip I stop reading it. If I wanted to read about gossip, I’d read a magazine or tabloid not a newspaper like the New York Times.
I won’t lie, when I see that a story has cited anonymous sources, I immediately begin to doubt its credibility. Rags like “OK” and “US Weekly” fill their stories with unnamed and anonymous sources. I’ve given up reading those rags because I can’t trust anything they say. They never identify sources and that leads me to believe they are making them up.
I would rarely recommend using an anonymous source when it comes to political figures. Yes, that may be the only way a reporter can get information about a story but you never know what hidden agenda people in politics may or may not have.
Anonymous sources in articles about the military scare me a little. As an editor or reporter, I would never want to print information that had the potential to put a lot of soldiers or people at risk. The military has a reason for being secretive and that reason is our soldier’s and indirectly our safety. Anonymous sources in military articles should rarely if ever be used.
The Detroit Free Press not naming the players was the correct thing to do. These were college student-athletes who had no reason to want to bring the football organization down. Since they were good enough at football to be able to play for a prestigous football program, they most likely loved the game. Why would they want to see it fall? Also, the backlash was huge. If the students had been named, that backlash would’ve been directed at them and not at the reporters and editor of the Detroit Free Press. What if some of those players had wanted to live in Michigan after they graduated? People would still remember them as the boys who helped expose wrong doing that the University. I guarantee you, they would have treated the former players differently.
Hi, it’s me again. I forgot to add something.
When it comes to guidelines for editors, I believe that they should look at motives for the source exposing the information, who would be affected by it and the repercussions of naming someone who wanted to remain anonymous.
I think the Detroit Free Press editors did a very good job of making sure that their sources were legitimate and that they had no motive for revealing the information they had.
All in all, editors should be extremly cautious when confronted by anonymous sources.
Sometimes it is appropriate to use anonymous sources. Not very often though. Anonymous sources make it possible for people to lie and it can put a writer’s credibility in question. Having identifiable sources make what is written believable and “checkable.” There are times though, as in the University of Michigan story, where it makes sense for the sources to be anonymous. There is strength in numbers. One anonymous source saying the players were overworked wouldn’t create much controversy. Several players who are anonymous, saying there are overworked, and are afraid to reveal their identities because of backlash, says a lot.
In the John Edwards case and the Obama case, I don’t feel it was appropriate to run a story creating controversy when the information was coming from people who didn’t want to be identified. In this case, it came off as gossip. If someone wants to speak on a condition of anonymity after the fact, that might be a little different. In this case though, there was obviously something to be gained and lost by being anonymous. I don’t think the story should have been run in this situation. I would have waited until it had built it’s own natural credibility.
I have read many news stories that had anonymous sources. I haven’t honestly thought much about it until I became a journalism major. The John Edwards story was the most notable one, for me, in recent times. Now that I am immersed in news, I will be keeping my eye out of stories that don’t sound right.
I don’t think it is ever appropriate to use anonymous sources. I think it brings a questionable persona to the newspaper and readers will doubt the information, as well as sourced information. I wouldn’t use information unless I could source it.
A newspaper’s credibility is based on information that has truth to it. Without being held accountable to the truth, a newspaper could run rampant printing whatever they heard, regardless of whether it was true or not. The same is true of most anonymous quotes. Without a named source, a quote has no one to be attributed to. So using anonymous sources is best left to the tabloids and magazine gossip pages, where potentially true statements are much more at home.
If an editor chooses to use an anonymous quote, I think the best way to proceed is by verifying the authenticity of it. If Joe Smith off the street tells you about his inside knowledge of the local college football team kicking a member off the team, it should be carefully analyzed. But if the assistant athletic trainer tells you the same information, it can be assumed that perhaps this information is more legitimate and trustworthy.
In the mentioned anonymous source stories, the sources did not prove anything. Individual people came out at a later time, but overall, the sources carry no credibility and people usually doubt they have any significance.
Any story that has an anonymous quote puzzles me. If you have no one to actually quote, what do you know? A person who will not be named but is willing to share information with you is questionable. And most importantly, the newspaper is held accountable for what it writes. Not what somebody says.
When we first started discussing the use of anonymous sources I thought it seemed like a no-brainer that anonymous sources are pointless and should be out of the question when reporters are citing information. Why would a reporter ever want to cite an anonymous source? Citing an unnamed source often raises suspicion in a reader about the credibility of the information. As I read the articles, however, I came to understand why unnamed sources might be used. In the second article it says “Few people want to speak on the record about sensitive matters like a senator’s affair, and that means using anonymous sources.” Speaking out on sensitive issues is not something people like to do – and if they are identified they might not be as likely to share as much information. The second article also explains that “Accepting a source’s demand for anonymity is sometimes essential to getting critical information.” Although critical information may be gathered, “the overuse of unnamed sources can damage credibility.” In the case of the football players the article asserts that the reporters had well-documented the story. Giving all sides of a story is important and sometimes getting all the sides means using anonymous sources.
A paper shouldn’t quote anonymous sources without reason, though. Fore example, the second article gives this quote as an example of poor anonymous sourcing: “But a few months ago, when the couple showed up for dinner at a Chapel Hill restaurant, diners averted their eyes and stared at their plates, according to a person who was there.” This sentence adds little to the story and seems unnecessary. If papers are going to cite anonymous sources they should provide valid and crucial information, not petty details that anyone could come up with. The first article raises the question of media manipulation: unnamed sources make it easier for reporters to manipulate a story to their advantage. Anonymous sources are tricky; papers need to make sure that their identified sources are at least credible so that not too much suspicion is raised when it is deemed necessary to use an unidentified source.
I think anonymous sources should be used as rarely as possible. Requiring a source to be publicly identified helps journalists avoid publishing information that was released for malicious reasons. The only time I think anonymous sources should be used is if they would suffer severe injury by being named. In the University of Michigan case, naming the football players who spoke out against the school would cause public ostracism that could potentially hurt the players’ future playing careers.
Another thing that should be considered when using anonymous sources is the story’s importance. Is the story important enough that it warrants being published with anonymous sources? In the case of the Afghanistan leak, I think the answer to that question would be yes. American lives and taxes have been paying for the war in Afghanistan for eight years; Americans deserve to know what is really going on in the Middle East. I think The Washington Post did a good job covering this story because they went and talked to government officials before publishing the story. Whenever using anonymous sources, I think it is important to verify the information if possible and talk to the parties involved beforehand. If people cannot know who is accusing them of something, they should at least be warned in advance that their affairs are going to be in the news. I think this especially true when it is a national security issue involving the government and military.
I do not like the John Edwards story, but I agree with its publication because there is an upcoming book on the subject anyway; however, I would have made it an article on the book and not mentioned the alleged details of Edward’s affair. There is no way to determine the sources’ motives, and the information has no affect on the public. If Edwards was in office, I would definitely publish the story because citizens have a right to know about public office holders. As it is, Edwards is no longer involved in politics, so I would only publish a story with such dramatic details if I could name the source. The details from the anonymous source actually make me doubt the story’s credibility. The rooftop wedding ceremony with the Dave Matthew’s Band seems too crazy to be true. The Edward’s story just comes across as too sensationalist for me to trust it without a named source,
the information **does not affect** the public
I think that anonymous sources offer a lot of promise, but have the potential to be disastrous in the wrong situations. I think what is important to make evident when writing or deciding to run a story with anonymous sources, is that it is not accepted as 100 percent truth. It’s important to provide factual context, any sort of verifiable evidence, as well as any sort of contrary arguments (if such exist).
I think the examples in the articles point out another thing that all editors must consider as well: What is the sources motivation for leaking this information. If you carefully consider why someone might be talking or sharing information, it might give you proper perspective as an editor to decide whether or not to run a story.
Another thing that can be learned from the examples in the articles is how each situation requires certain levels of discretion. Whether it’s taking caution with sensitive information like in the Afghanistan, to holding no punches in some of the more superficial situations, with anonymous sources it’s important to consider each situation individually.
One story I found that was a bad example of how to use anonymous sources was the revelations in Major League Baseball about some players testing positive in 2003. The tests they players took in 2003 were anonymous tests that were only supposed to be used to determine if enough players were using that they had to put it strict testing poilcies. In the original design, names were not even supposed to be associated with the testing samples so that no one would know who provided each sample. What happened instead was that this year, so six years after this “anonymous” testing, lawyers close to the case leaked the names of a few superstar players who were on the list. Not only did this anonymous source break the law by revealing information that legally could not be shared, but he or she also seemingly had access to information that never should have existed. This situation is so unfair to those whose names were released on so many levels. In this situation the ability of a source to be anonymous allowed them to break the law and reveal information that wasn’t supposed to e availble, without having to offer any proof. What made it even worse is that even if the players named wanted to know if they were on the list or not, the legal nature of the situation prevented the players union from telling them anything about the tests.
As an editor, you must never run a story using anonymous sources unless you have discussed the story with the reporter. Only then, when you understand the reasons for anonymity and the context of the story and the impact it will have, is it appropriate to use anonymous sources. Some of the best and most important stories in journalism have been written using anonymous sources. However, this does not mean they are encouraged because the overuse of this type of source can damage a newspaper’s credibility.
It is difficult to define specific guidelines an editor should have for using anonymous sources because each story presents a unique situation and should be considered in its own context. Editors should work with the reporter to encourage their source to go on record. If this does not work, confirming information through other sources or channels is vital. The textbook says “…Allowing people to go unnamed means allowing them to avoid accountability for their words.” This lack of accountability is critical when considering whether a source is a reliable one. However, even with solid reporting, it is difficult for a reporter to know the true motives of a source.
Howard Kurtz’s commentary on The Washington Post’s exclusive story about Stanley McChrystal’s assessment that the Afghan conflict “will likely result in failure” without more U.S. troops in the next year, was particularly interesting. Kurtz points out that the person in the Obama administration who leaked this information to Bob Woodward could have had two very different motives for wanting this information published:
1. Someone with the civilian faction opposed to further military buildup
2. Official with the military faction that favors more troops
Woodwad never clarifies what the true motive was and I think this is a good example of reporting information from an anonymous source correctly. The whole point of having an anonymous source, and often times why they come forward, is so information that otherwise would have been secret is brought to light for the American public. Whatever an insider divulges, that information should be reported without twisting and changing the intentions of the source as well as not pushing an agenda. Information should be fact for the reader to draw their own conclusions from.
When – if ever – do you think it’s appropriate to use anonymous sources? Why?
It seems the industry standard is to use anonymous sources when their information is newsworthy enough to warrant no attribution. At least that’s the standard perpetuated by major newspapers, like the New York Times and Washington Post.
But it also seems that people would be driven to exaggerate the facts when questioned by a reporter writing a high-profile story. So we as reporters or editors need to make inferences and determine what any ulterior motives may be.
It’s hard to draw the line when considering what moral implications would arise from judging someone’s hidden agendas. But generally, if it’s for the good of the readership to know what the anonymous sources have to say, then anonymous sources may be used.
And I think that means they should be used sparingly, with whistle-blower cases being the prime example of when best to use them.
What guidelines do you think an editor should have for using anonymous sources?
I think the news is like an interposed device, like a messenger as one of the commentors said in the U-M story. “If you blame the Free Press, you just blame the messenger.” Editors need to realize how their role as messenger can vary depending on the circumstance.
For example, if someone knows they won’t be held accountable for what they say, it’s sort of like being behind the curtain of a computer keyboard. Most of us wouldn’t say the things we do via the Internet in real life.
Similarly, we might blow up factual information if we know our name won’t be attached to it.
So guidelines editors must have include considering the credibility of the actual words of an anonymous source, considering how important they are to the story itself, and considering how the newspaper’s credibility on the whole may be affected by using an anonymous source.
Do you think the anonymous source use in the U-M football story, the John Edwards story, the Afghanistan and Paterson stories (mentioned in the Kurtz column) was appropriate? Why or why not?
I think it was appropriate in the U-M football story and the Afghanistan story. On that amorphous scale of newsworthiness, it seems those two stories and their anonymous sources were the most prudential to the public.
The other two fall more toward gossip. When personal lives are in play, especially in politics it seems, editors have to question whether anonymous sources are simply trying to stoke a fire.
So I’d be more wary of using anonymous sources for the John Edwards story and the Paterson story.
Have you read a story with anonymous sources that made you question its credibility?
I can’t think of any in particular, but I’m always leery of the possibly politically driven comments of unnamed people in the government.
Editors need to be careful when considering anonymous sources, lest they too come under fire. As we discussed in class, a sources motives need to be considered and investigated, when a news organization is considering running such a story. However, as pointed out in some of the articles, sometimes an anonymous source’s testimony is such big news it would be crazy not to run. Of course, reporters need to investigate themselves and find out what is true and what isn’t if any.
I don’t think a source should be used if some sort of personal gain might stem from the interview. That would create an ethical problem. At that point, a news organization stops being objective and inadvertently starts supporting the sources agenda, be it book or whatever.
I shudder to think how the state of Nebraska would react if allegations were made against Bo Pellini. The streets would run red! And, I’m not talking husker red. If the U-M players hadn’t taken on anonymity, who knows the extent of ridicule these guys would have to bare? When it comes down to it, they’re just kids, college students, when you remove their demigod status as college football players. They don’t need the death wises of irrational mega fans on their consciences, like the reporters who wrote the piece.
I think that with all stories ran with anonymous sources, the John Edwards, David Paterson and Afghanistan assessment articles were viewed by the general public with skepticism or at least reserve until some sort of confirmation came out. I know when I see such a story, I don’t jump in head first and believe everything I read. I don’t think anyone does. But, what these stories are good for is bringing attention to an issue and forcing a response from the party in question. They’re confrontations. The party in question cannot ignore them, and for that reason alone, this type of story is sometimes a necessary evil.
Though anonymous sources can provide good information, I find them hard to believe. Who is to say the anonymous person didn’t make the whole thing, or that the reporter made up their source. I feel that without naming a source and telling the audience why that person has any authority on the subject, the information is not credible and no one will believe it. It is just speculation.
If a story can be done like the U-M football story where players were talked to, but not named, I think that is more valid. It still identifies who the sources were so you know they were at least real people. I understand why names were not printed to protect the players from retribution from the coaches.
Editors and reporters need to keep in mind their anonymous sources motives. What will they stand to benefit for giving up the information? Who are they telling on and why would they want to do so? These are all questions that would come to my mind if someone were telling me detailed information but didn’t want to be identified as the one giving it up.
News organizations should have a set of standards to follow that everyone agrees to follow. Reporters should trust their anonymous source and discuss the information given to them with their editor and both should decide what to do from there. If I was an editor and a reporter came to me with an anonymous source, I would want to know who they were and try to figure out their motives. If the reporter could not tell me, I would be reluctant to run any kind of story.
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