Home > Uncategorized > Anonymous sources: Are they necessary?

Anonymous sources: Are they necessary?

We talked a bit this week about using anonymous sources in stories. One question editors should ask when they edit a story with an anonymous source is “what is the source’s motive for giving me this information?” The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, addresses that issue in his column.   Andy Bechtel, an editing professor and former editor, blogs about the use of anonymous sources in a New York Times story about John Edwards and his mistress’s baby.  And finally the editor of the Detroit Free Press defends his decision to use anonymous sources in a story about the University of Michigan football team.

Read all three of these reports and then answer the following questions in the comments section for your class. When – if ever – do you think it’s appropriate to use anonymous sources? Why? 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? Have you read a story with anonymous sources that made you question its credibility? Tell me about it. This assignment is due at the beginning of class next Thursday, Oct. 8.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. lilacshreiks
    October 3, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Especially considering the topic we covered last week I do think it is sometimes appropriate to use anonymous sources. I think it can be harmful for someone to be connected to a certain fact or a certain type of story when he or she is acting as a known informant. The type of person, a close relative for example, that is a source can become more talked about or as talked about as the information that he or she supplied. In this way, anonymous sources can be very useful and not experience a backlash. It is up to the editors and reporters to decide whether the information and source is credible.

    Editors should then have guidelines to help them decide whether to use an anonymous source. I think an editor should think about the motives of that source. Like in the Michigan football story the football players had reason to give that information. As athletes who love their sport they wouldn’t have made up such a problem if it wasn’t true.

    I think the use of anonymous sources in the Edwards case wasn’t as credible as the football story. Politicians, when confronted with their own mistakes, tend to lie. If you can’t even trust the main person in the story to be telling the truth, then why would a reporter be able to know if another person, who wants to remain anonymous, is credible? I personally dislike stories like that so I have a hard time even understanding what is newsworthy about whether he impregnated a woman or not. The ‘mistress’ scandal had already blown up and I think it was just further dragging people into the dirt even more, namely Elizabeth Edwards and her children.

    I am unsure how to deal with anonymous sources in cases like the Afghanistan and Paterson story. Any story involving the military is at risk for giving something away or giving a certain impression to the world that may or may not be completely true. I think it is difficult for journalists to really get a tight hold on what the truth is because honestly, no one knows what to do in Afghanistan and Iraq. Everyone just has an opinion about it and their own view of the proper strategies. So in a way the reporter is going to be reporting a certain group of people’s opinion and impressions by saying that Afghanistan is a waste unless we get more troops in. The motives of the sources in that article were brought up, and I think that’s what I’m also trying to say. It’s not just motives, it may just be someone’s point of view or the point of view that is the most loud at that moment in time.

    I am sure I have read stories with anonymous sources, but I cannot think of a specific one right now. Usually, if I feel that a story is not being reported fairly or accurately I just stop reading and I don’t doubt that anonymous sources have played into that before. Though, it was probably more of a gossip example like one of the articles pointed out than actual newsworthy information.


  2. Kat Ladwig
    October 8, 2009 at 7:33 am

    I think anonymous sources should only be used if the information gathered from them is crucial and vital to the article.
    I think that the use of an anonymous source was not as important in the football and Edwards’ stories as opposed to the Paterson article, which involved politics and is a here and now topic. The football story made it kind the information kind of seem like gossip, since the reader doesn’t know whether or not the sources could just be disgruntled players.
    The Edwards piece was kind of the same, especially since things can be so unsure with politicians and in my opinion, the reporter should use as credible of sources as possible.
    The information on Afghanistan could have been dangerous, but I think that Woodward handled it well and did the most important thing, kept the information out of the public eye that could have been detrimental to the safety of our troops.
    An example I can think of an anonymous source was actually about an anonymous subject. There was a girl in my high school who cut herself repeatedly as a form of stress relief. The theme of the newspaper issue at the time was dangerous addictions. The girl agreed to do the story, if her name was not mentioned or given a different name. We asked ourselves, is this story newsworthy then? We understood the girl’s desire to not be named, but the story would almost seem fictional. I asked the girl why she wanted to be in the paper and her response more or less made our decision easy. She wanted others out there with the same habit of cutting themselves (or those thinking about it) that it is a bad thing and not to start since it is very dangerous. She wanted to put a message out there and we were that outlet.

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