Learning the news: Anonymous sources used too often

The uses of “anonymous sources” to get a scoop has gone too far in American political journalism, writes Roger Plothow.

Anonymous sources, long a staple of political reporting, have become the lingua franca of stories coming out of Washington since the election of Donald Trump.

It’s not new, but it seems far more prevalent, for myriad reasons. The question is, as we strive to become a more media-literate society, is it right?

Let’s start by defining what the term means. The use of an “anonymous source” doesn’t mean that the journalist doesn’t know who provided the information. It means the journalist knows the source of the information but is granting that source anonymity for the purposes of the story.

At the Post Register, we rarely allow for anonymous sources in our reporting, but we are not covering the labyrinth that is Washington D.C. Political reporters inside the beltway routinely scoff at the quaint notion that they over-use anonymous sources. It’s what they do.

They do it too much.

Instead of being a practice of last resort, journalists in Washington seem to operate under the assumption that granting anonymity is the only way to get a story, and if they don’t do it others will. In that highly competitive world, they could very well be correct. But that still doesn’t make it right.

The touchstone for guidelines to journalism standards has long been the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which has a lot to say about anonymous sources, starting with this:

“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. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

It’s safe to say that this advice is routinely ignored in Washington. For starters, every source has a motive, and it’s rarely purely about serving the public good. Additionally, everyone in Washington is subject to retribution for leaking information others want kept quiet. So Washington journalists face a conundrum, largely of their own making. Stories based on anonymous sources have become so routine that many news outlets would essentially go dark if they didn’t use them.

Still, if we’re going to ask the members of the administration and Congress to look deeply into their hearts and find ways to change the dysfunction in Washington, it’s only fair to ask the same of the journalists covering them.

From time to time I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this with journalists inside the Beltway, and the reaction is always the same: “Isn’t that cute, your notion that we should do our jobs without using anonymous sources?” It comes with a look that is the equivalent of a head pat.

When journalists snatch up the latest anonymously provided information and push it out to us, they know they are being used for political purposes. It’s just how the game is played. The practice isn’t going to end, or even diminish. But we would be right to treat with a little additional skepticism any story based mostly or entirely on anonymous sources. If we expect any of the major Washington players to change, including the Fourth Estate, we need to raise the bar for them and hold them more accountable for clearing it.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long weekly series on media literacy.