Evaluating unnamed sources in news stories

Illustration of an anonymous source writing at desk.

On Sept. 5, the New York Times editorial page editors took what they called “the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay.” The action raises an important issue in journalism and an opportunity to teach students about evaluating unnamed sources in the news.

By “unnamed sources,” I am referring to the people who provide information published in news articles, editorials or other opinion pieces but whose names are not revealed to the public. (It’s important to remember that the source’s identity is unknown to us, the readers or viewers, but is known by the journalist or editors of the news organization).

Being a critical consumer of news includes understanding and evaluating the different types of sources to accurately judge whether a news article is credible. But evaluating unnamed sources requires a closer evaluation of both the journalist and news organization.

Most news articles routinely attribute key facts to a source, who is identified by name and title — that is, information telling us why the source is in a position to know about and comment on the topic.

When the source is unnamed, there are two key elements for news consumers to consider: why the source desires anonymity, and their motivations for sharing information.

Broadly speaking, in journalism there are three levels of attribution. Good journalists set the ground rules with their sources before the reporting begins.

  • On the record: The source allows their words to be quoted and their name to be used in the story.
  • Not for attribution: Information from the source will be used in the story but the source will be unnamed.
  • Off the record: Neither the name of the source nor the information will be used directly in the story (the journalist might use the information for her own understanding of the subject, but specific details won’t be published).

“Not for attribution” seems to contradict the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which states that journalists should “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

Why, then, do journalists use unnamed sources, especially as it might endanger the trust the public has in its work? After all, the public should know whether the person is in a position to be fully informed on the matter, or whether he or she is offering a skewed version that serves their purposes, not ours.

The news organization’s obligation

For starters: Good news organizations do not publish information from unnamed sources without consideration and thorough vetting. As reporter Jason Grotto of ProPublica Illinois wrote, his organization’s ethics guidelines allow sources to remain unnamed “only when they insist upon it and when they provide vital information,” “when there is no other way to obtain that information” and when the journalist knows that the source is “knowledgeable and reliable.”

Typically, journalists share the names of these sources with their editors, who assess whether those criteria are met.

The SPJ code of ethics also says that journalists should “Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”

Motives vary: Sources may be acting as a whistleblower, exposing corruption or other criminal conduct. They may feel compelled to share information with the public that is being withheld for some reason. Or — and good journalists know this — they might have their own interests at heart. That does not necessarily disqualify the accuracy of the information, but it is why quality journalism strives to have facts verified by multiple sources.

News coverage that uses unnamed sources owes it to news consumers to make clear as much as possible why the person was granted anonymity, and why the source’s motives did not invalidate the value of the information.

The news consumer’s obligation

The challenge for news consumers is that we have no way to verify what the journalist has published. We must decide whether to trust the journalist and news organization. Fortunately, there are some actions we can take that help build that trust.

When evaluating a news article that cites unnamed sources, we must take a step back and engage in lateral reading about the journalist who wrote the article and the news organization that published the story. We should spend time looking at other articles from the journalist. How often do they use unnamed sources? (Are they lazy, or are they privy to higher-ups who have classified but great information?) Do they write about this particular subject regularly, indicating they have in-depth knowledge? Are their stories primarily news or do they publish opinion pieces? (Could indicate a bias that must be evaluated) Has the journalist and news organization fulfilled their obligations relating to unnamed sources?

Another point of evaluation is whether the journalist has given us enough context about the anonymous source to determine some level of authenticity. Looking for key phrases tells us something about the source. In his post on the FiveThirtyEight blog, “When To Trust A Story That Uses Unnamed Sources,” Perry Bacon Jr. provides five details readers should look for when evaluating a story that uses unnamed sources, such as whether a good number of other sources are cited as confirming a claim. Bacon’s follow-up post, “Which Anonymous Sources Are Worth Paying Attention To?,” explains how to judge various titles applied to unnamed sources such as “Pentagon officials,” “sources familiar with,” and “law enforcement officials.” The more details provided by the journalist, the more comfortable we can be trusting the information.

More fundamentally, has the article explained why the source is anonymous? Providing a reason for anonymity is something we can evaluate. Although we don’t need to agree with it, we can judge why anonymity was granted. We should also check to see if the news organization has a published policy on using unnamed sources. Here are examples from The Washington Post, NPR and the Associated Press.

We should not dismiss the use of anonymous sources out of hand. When it comes to reporting about the government, journalists find they must rely on sources who fear being named. Those same journalists recognize that using anonymous sources can make their work seem less credible. Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor of the New York Times, in a 2013 column quoted a national security editor who said of government sources, “It’s almost impossible to get people who know anything to talk,” especially on the record. “So we’re caught in this dilemma.”

It is important to recognize that the use of anonymous sources is in some cases unavoidable, but good journalists try to avoid such use. What we as news consumers must do is place a certain amount of trust in professional journalists will provide us with the relevant information to know that the information from those sources has been verified and that anonymity of the source was the only way to obtain it.

As for the New York Times op-ed, the author is identified as a “senior official in the Trump administration”; the editors’ intro also says this person’s “job would be jeopardized” were the name disclosed. It remains up for debate as to whether the opinion-page editors made a good decision in publishing the piece. And that’s what we as critical consumers of news should be able to do: Evaluate the available information and make our own determination as to whether what was published is credible.

Sources and further reading:

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