Evaluating unnamed sources in news reports


John Silva

John Silva, NBCT

Senior Director of Education and Training

Illustration of an anonymous source writing at desk.

On Sept. 5, the editors of The New York Times’ opinion page 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 reports, editorials and other opinion pieces but whose names are not given. (It’s important to remember that the source’s identity is unknown to us — the readers, viewers and listeners — but is known by the journalist and, usually, at least one editor at the news organization.)

Being a critical consumer of news includes understanding and evaluating different types of sources — such as official sources, eyewitness sources, raw video and documents — to determine whether a news article is credible. Evaluating the words of individuals who are not named requires a closer look at both the journalist and the news organization.

Most news articles routinely attribute key facts to a source who is identified by name and, often, by title — information telling us why the source is in a position to know about and comment on the topic. When the source is unnamed, news consumers should consider two key elements: why the source desires anonymity, and what is behind the source’s decision to share this information.

Here is how The Associated Press, a global news agency that produces more than 2,000 news stories per day, defines the terms used in granting anonymity (parenthetical information in the definitions is not from AP). Other news organizations may have their own definitions of these terms. Both the reporter and the source must agree to these ground rules before an interview.

  • On the record: The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
  • Off the record: The information cannot be used for publication. (But the reporter can use this knowledge to get the information verified elsewhere.)
  • On background: The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. (Other news outlets may refer to this as “not for attribution”; some may even distinguish between “not for attribution” and “on background.”)
  • On deep background: The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.

Why do journalists use unnamed sources, especially since it might endanger the trust the public has in their work? After all, the public should know whether these sources are in a position to be fully informed on the matter or are 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.

As the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code notes, “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, of course, vary. The source may be acting as a whistleblower, exposing corruption or other illegal conduct. The source may feel compelled to share information with the public that is being withheld for some reason. Or — and good journalists know this — the source might have personal interests at heart. That does not necessarily disqualify the accuracy of the information, but it is why one standard of quality journalism is verification of facts by multiple sources.

News organizations that use unnamed sources owe it to their readers, viewers and listeners to clarify, as much as possible, why the source 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 the use of unnamed sources provides no outside way to verify what the journalist has written. We must decide whether to trust the journalist and the news organization. Fortunately, there are some actions we can take that help build that trust.

When evaluating a news article that uses unnamed sources, take a step back and engage in lateral reading* about the journalist who wrote the article and the news organization that published the report. Take a look at other articles by that journalist: How often does he use unnamed sources? (Is he lazy, or is he privy to officials who have great — but classified — information?) Does she write about this particular subject regularly, indicating that she has in-depth knowledge? Does the journalist also write opinion pieces? (If so, this could indicate a bias that must be evaluated.)

Consider, too, whether the journalist has provided sufficient context to determine whether the source is reliable and credible. In “When To Trust A Story That Uses Unnamed Sources,” Perry Bacon Jr. of FiveThirtyEight gives five details that readers should look for when considering a story that uses unnamed sources. His follow-up post, “Which Anonymous Sources Are Worth Paying Attention To?,” explains how to evaluate the description applied to an unnamed source — such as “a Pentagon official,” “a person familiar with” or “a law enforcement official.” The more details the journalist provides about a source, the more comfortable we can be trusting what that source has to say.

More fundamentally, has the article explained why the source was granted anonymity? Explaining why a source isn’t named — for example, attributing behind-the-scenes information about congressional action to “a committee aide who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting” — is something we can evaluate. Check to see if the news organization has a published policy on using unnamed sources (such as these from The Washington Post and NPR).

We shouldn’t dismiss the use of anonymous sources out of hand. Particularly when reporting about the government, journalists often must rely on sources who have a justifiable concern about being named; at the same time, they must recognize that using anonymous sources may make their work appear less credible. In 2013, Margaret Sullivan, then the public editor of The New York Times, 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.”

As for that op-ed in The New York Times, the author is described as “a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.” Whether the opinion page editors made a good decision in publishing the piece remains up for debate. And that’s what we, as critical consumers of news, should be able to do: Evaluate the available information and make our own determination about the credibility of what was published.

Further reading:

**The lateral reading concept and the term itself developed from research conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), led by Sam Wineburg, founder and executive director of SHEG.

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