In continuing with our series on examining different issues in journalism by picking the brains of Washington journalists (or those who work for D.C. news outlets), we have our next issue: the use of unnamed sources in stories. Washington is full of stories in print, online and TV involving “a top government official” or “a tippy top” aide as was recently used in Politico Playbook. We asked five journalists to weigh in. See where your views line up in relation to theirs.
See our first edition of “5 Views” here and if you have an idea or want to hear about a certain journalism topic, write to Betsy@firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to be one of our “experts” there’s no shame in letting me know. Well, there might be, but let me know anyway, we’d love to have you.
Stephen Smith, Editor-in-Chief, The Washington Examiner: “When I came to Washington as an editor two decades ago, I was immediately struck by the prevalence of unnamed sources in stories I was handling, noticeably more than in New York and a quantum jump over the number I had seen in Philadelphia and Boston. I naively tried to push back but quickly learned that reporters can’t function here without NFA quotes. The only way to help readers navigate this anonymous world is to describe sources in a way that makes clear, or at least suggests, their possible motives and biases. To take an obvious example, an unnamed staffer for a Tea Party lawmaker and a staffer for a “moderate” GOP member are both Republicans, but they are trying to get across vastly different messages. The more explicit a reporter can be about motive, the better off the reader will be. Readers in Washington are the most news savvy in the country and can usually decode what’s going on if they’re properly oriented. The fight over the showdown reminds us that we should be thankful for the accessibility of lawmakers on the Hill — and their willingness to speak on the record in Capitol hallways or at ‘pressers’ and ‘pen and pads.’ The White House, under presidents of both parties, is hopeless — nothing but spin, talking points, artful leaks and pabulum. Reporters who get real information from real White House sources are journalistic magicians.”
Greta Van Susteren, host, Fox News’ “On the Record”: “Anonymous sources? It is disgraceful how much journalists use them. Anonymous sources should be used RARELY (i.e. the whistleblower who could lose his job and the story is a serious news matter) and not as a steady diet, which they’ve become for some journalists and news organizations. It appears some journalists are too lazy to go out and get the story and get it on the record. It’s easier to find that coward who will say something, but not for attribution. Anonymous source identifications are often used by the sources to do a drive by ambush or get even with someone without having the courage to step up to the plate and be identified. The overuse of anonymous sources has cheapened journalism. So many journalists, and their editors, rely so often on anonymous sources that they don’t even realize how unfair it is to the target of the story, or the integrity of their own reporting. How does a target respond to an unfair or even false statement if you don’t even know who is saying it? And what can hold a source to truth telling without his or her name attached? It can be like Kafka’s THE TRIAL. And what about readers and listeners? They have no way of knowing whether the anonymous source should be believed. It is not enough for me that some journalist reports it – maybe that reporter is lazy? Being had? Has no second source? How do we know? I’d like to know who said it and why. Does the anonymous source have an ax to grind? Maybe the anonymous source is just making it up? Let me state emphatically: there is a place in news reporting for anonymous sources – but that should be rare, and not common.”
Don’t miss our remaining views and the journalist who can’t and wouldn’t live without unnamed sources. Ben White, chief economic reporter, Politico: “I use unnamed sources quite a lot because in D.C. reporting it’s often the only way to get someone to be honest about something or give you any useful information beyond stale talking points. What I don’t like — and I’m sure I’m guilty of this at times — is granting anonymity to someone who still doesn’t really say anything useful. Sometimes I’ll just say, ‘You know you could just say that to me on the record,’ and often they will. It’s a good policy to try and push for on the record stuff. I know there are outlets with policies against unnamed sources or strongly discouraging of them and I admire the sentiment. But I don’t know how I would do my job of trying to give people a real picture of what’s going on in Washington and on Wall Street if I didn’t often use them. But I also have a looser policy for anonymous sources in my Morning Money column, which is, by design, a tip sheet, than I do in full-dress stories. It’s also a dicey business to grant anonymity to people who take pot shots at others. Not saying I haven’t done that as well, but I do try to at least get responses from those on the receiving end.”
Igor Bobic, Assistant Editor, Talking Points Memo: “For better or worse, anonymous sourcing is the bread and butter of reporting in Washington. It often provides reporters important insight into incremental developments and allows for more colorful stories, especially on the Hill. But you forget sometimes how asinine and value-free it is to your audience (one real example: administration official demanding anonymity about a fun story on a White House petition to build a ‘Star Wars’ death star). So you’re often left facing a tragedy of commons: Fight your source and risk losing your story to countless competitors, or go with the flow because hey, you live in #ThisTown.”
Anonymous, political reporter, an undisclosed newsroom around town: “I use them more than I’d like but I think they can often be useful to give a candid view on a controversial topic. That said, I think reporters tend to abuse them — which causes sources to expect anonymity, and reporters to allow it, even when it’s unnecessary or problematic. It’s become a bit of a vicious cycle.”