Sacred Sources

What should journalists keep in mind while using anonymous sources?

Late this July, CNN carried a bombshell of a story about how back in 2016, Republican candidate Donald Trump had advance knowledge of a meeting between his campaign officials and a Russian attorney who claimed to possess damaging information—sourced from the Kremlin—about Hillary Clinton. Following this, several other news outlets also carried stories based on this particular scoop.

The reports were attributed to anonymous sources close to Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. It was also reported that Cohen was willing to co-operate with federal investigators with this information. Did these reports finally present ironclad proof of collusion between Trump and the Russians?

One of the authors of the report, Carl Bernstein called it “worse than Watergate” perhaps hoping that this would be his second successful unseating of a US Republican President. But before anybody could spell “impeach,” it was discovered that in a previously sworn testimony, Cohen has stated that Trump did not have knowledge of the meeting.

Last week, Clinton loyalist and attorney to Cohen, Lanny Davis, had informed BuzzFeed News that he was the anonymous source for the articles appearing in various media outlets and that he was “not certain” about the assertions that were made previously. Davis had been the primary promoter of this story on new channels and had even set up a crowdfunding website to enable himself a fee. The New York Post and Washington Post admitted that Davis was their source, and published the lawyer’s apology for misleading them. CNN stuck by the story claiming it had other sources but refused to reveal anything more than that.

This debunked story is just another in a series of anti-Trump articles which emanated from “Senior White House officials,” “sources close to an individual” or just “administration officials.” It is beginning to look like the boy who cried wolf and has contributed to the dwindling trust people have in the media.

The question that arises is, should any responsible news organisation publish a story when the source is unwilling to be identified? If any individual is averse to be held accountable, why should the story even be considered? The source could be planted by an adversary or may just be a gossip monger or a Walter Mitty sort of character.

The “unnamed source” can also be invented to peddle fake news. For the casual consumer “according to top aides of the President” or “Intelligence Sources” automatically grants an air of gravitas to a report, since the relation between the source and the journalist is as sacrosanct as the relationship between a lawyer and his/her client.

A journalist can hide behind the “need to protect my source” reason and the damaging allegations would remain unresolved. There have been cases, such as that of Judith Miller, who refused to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a leak revealing the identity of a CIA operative.
So, do we assume that unnamed sources are too risky and open to misuse, hence it is better to abandon the practice and use only named sources?

Before we pronounce that judgement, let’s remember Watergate, where FBI official Mark Felt—nicknamed “Deep Throat”—was the anonymous informant to reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. Without Felt, the scandal would never have never come to light and we would never have known of the widespread corruption prevailing in the Nixon administration.

The best way to judge this is to place yourself right at the centre and hypothesise your reaction. Would you go on record and reveal your name if you learn of corruption, abuse and harassment in your organisation? Would you go on record knowing that the entire senior leadership of your organisation is either complicit or is turning a blind eye to the malpractice? Would you go on record if you know that your superiors can retaliate to ruin your career—if your identity is known? Would you be willing to go on the record if malpractice emanates from government officials who can trap you in a Kafkaesque maze of the legal tangle and send you to jail if your identity is revealed? In the absence of the facility of anonymity, perhaps you just remain silent. There would be no other way of exposing malpractice when the perpetrators are powerful and connected.

There has also been a surfeit of stories where information emanating from named sources have turned out to be incorrect. It is, therefore, a question of having a well-defined set of guidelines while dealing with sources—both named and unnamed.

For anonymous source the following conditions must be true:
– The information provided is of grave consequence to a large group of people i.e. citizens of a country, employees of a company, students of a university etc.
– Revelation of the identity of the individual could pose a threat to his life or harm to reputation.
– There are no other means of acquiring the information.
– There is no other source willing to go on record.
It is essential that organisations adhere to the following practices while dealing with unnamed sources:
– Conduct a thorough background vetting of the source via multiple agencies.
– Establish and verify the origin of the information being provided.
– Establish and verify the method being used to acquire the information.
– Establish and verify the possible motive behind the revelation.
– Establish and verify the reason for anonymity.
– Try and acquire other independent sources who can corroborate the information.
– Have multiple individuals, including those not actively working on the story, independently question the source to evaluate the authenticity of the information and the individual.
– Have a multilevel approval process in place that goes right up to the top of the editorial team such that the identity of the source is known to key people.

The above-mentioned practices have been compiled from the AP, the NYT, WaPo, the BBC and several otherprominent news organisations. They have existed for decades, and yet, there was a colossal mess when they reported on Trump’s knowledge of the meeting with Russia. This also highlights the importance of diversity in a newsroom, nota diversity of demographic, but political leaning and ideology. Perhaps a Trump supporter or a conservative vetting the story would have gone an extra mile to debunk the story?

In the end, a source—be it named or anonymous—are like any of the other tools available at the disposal of a journalist. The blame lies solely with the user of the tool and not the tool itself, if errors occur.

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