Increasing demands for anonymity

One of the most pernicious developments in modern journalism is the number of newspaper reports that feature anonymous sources. Anonymity is allowable and understandable for whistleblowers who risk retaliation for exposing wrongdoing or for victims of crimes or are otherwise in danger but now it is routinely given to high officials who are merely seeking to advance an agenda or are fighting internal turf wars and do not want their fingerprints over it.

But Cory Doctorow points out that even official spokespersons speaking officially about official institutional policy are demanding that they remain anonymous even for the most innocuous of statements. He argues, rightly in my opinion, that not having a name associated with a statement, but merely attributing it to an institution, robs the reader of a sense of accountability. As Doctorow states:

I’m talking about attending the press conference and asking the official spokesperson, making prepared statements on behalf of the company, what his name is. This is relevant. The reason that human beings deliver these statements is so that we’ll believe them and report on them, because statements attached to people are more convincing than anonymous, unsigned missives on the company website. If we are going to give statements credence because they originate with humans, then we should know who those humans are.

I agree.


  1. says

    The identity of a person who makes a statement is newsworthy and relevant. Without this fact, we are deprived of a key metric for determining credibility: identity. If a PR person says something at company “A” that turns out to have been a knowing lie, then we should be very skeptical of everything she says for companies B, C and on, throughout her employment history, unto Z.

    If we are going to give statements credence because they originate with humans, then we should know who those humans are.

    This seems silly to me. We should grant their statements as Corporate PR Flak Mary Miller as much credibility as any other information coming from a corporation: none. The fact that the relationship with the truth of any statement coming from a corporation is purely incidental is due to the nature of capitalism and corporations and not to the personal character of the flak in question. They’ve sold their expression to the corporation. A PR person who lied – or told the truth! – in ways not approved by the company would have a short career there.

    This just strikes me as a strange tangent. The real problem is corporate control over information even when it concerns matters of urgent public interest and the fact that the people really in charge face virtually no consequences (and in general reap great benefits) from knowingly withholding information and lying to the public.

  2. says

    I don’t agree, SC. The problem with corporations is that they let individuals get away with ethical violations by shielding themselves under the bland, anonymous mask of the corporation. It’s not their fault, see, they’re just doing their jobs. Requiring PR flacks to put their own individual names on the spin they spew at least adds a little bit more accountability to the mix and makes it a little bit harder for them to vanish behind that mask. It’s not a complete fix, but we need to do every little bit we can to remind these folks that they are still responsible for their own actions and their own ethics, no matter how vile their corporate masters may be.

  3. 'Tis Himself says

    When I was in government I became senior enough that reporters would sometimes interview me for stories. There was one particular reporter who misquoted me and misrepresented what I said a couple of times. The last time he interviewed me, he put his tape recorder on my desk and turned it on. I then pulled out my own recorder, put it next to his, and turned it on.

    “What’s that for?” he asked.

    “After your story is printed and my boss chews me out for making stupid statements that go against official policy, I want to show him that I didn’t actually say the things you quote me as saying.”

    The interview was very short and the one time I was quoted in the story, the quote as attributed to “a senior Treasury official.”

  4. F says

    If all you have is one anonymous source, the story is most likely not worth printing. Anonymous sources are fine if they are used as a starting point to, you know, dig up actual evidence to support the assertions made. At the very least, one could point to an anonymous source, some circumstantial suggestive data, and call for further research/investigation. But you cannot word such a piece to read as, “such and such is happening right now” as if it were a fact.

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