The anonymous sources trap

It is fine for reporters to give anonymity to those who fear retribution if their identity is revealed. But it is wrong to do so just so that the government can advance a message or an agenda without taking responsibility for it. One of the things that I have railed against is the practice of journalists granting anonymity to sources who are speaking with the approval of the government. This allows the sources to say things that can be denied later.

But once in a while, that practice can return to haunt them. Just recently, it looked like White House spokesperson Josh Earnest was caught when he chided reporters for using the words of anonymous sources to contradict what he was telling them, when it appeared that he might well have been the anonymous source he was now contradicting.

It all came to a head in the White House briefing room on Thursday, when Earnest was pressed on an AP report that cited “multiple US officials” who all used the same phrase to describe the intelligence assessment on the Syrian attack: “Not a slam dunk”. Reuters had a similar story, quoting US national security officials, saying there was “no smoking gun” that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, had personally ordered the attack.

For once, the anonymous stories had not gone quite the way the administration had wanted them. The AP story was the result of a demand by its investigations editor earlier in the week that hard questions be asked of intelligence sources.

Earnest tried to bat away questions on the subject. “You’ve got a handful of anonymous individuals who are quoted in that story,” he said.

“Do you disagree with it?” a reporter asked.

When Earnest knocked back another question seconds later, because it was based on anonymous sources, an incredulous reporter shouted out: “Josh, you guys talk to us anonymously all the time and expect us to believe those credible statements.”

“I’m just saying that anonymous sources …” Earnest began.

“But you talk to us anonymously all the time!” said another journalist.

Could Earnest have been one of those anonymous sources he was now suggesting were unreliable? If not, he is certain to have provided others like them, as he admitted. “What you also say to me, on a regular basis when I and others speak anonymously to you, is that you place more credibility in on-the-record statements,” Earnest said, with what looked like a straight face. “So that’s all I’m directing you to right now.”

This practice has become a farce and must stop.


  1. hyphenman says


    In my post-Watergate era journalism school classes, my professors told us time and time again that using anonymous sources was a sign of weak reporting and that only editors, once they were certain of the motives and legitimacy of the need to remain unnamed, could grant anonymity to a source.

    Sadly, weak reporting has become the norm for journalists in the 21st century.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  2. colnago80 says

    There was an interesting op-ed in a Lebanese newspaper a couple of weeks ago by a writer claiming that the chemical attack was actually ordered by Bashar’s younger brother Maher, who the writer claims, is the real bete noir behind the scenes in Damascus.

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I would like to find online, presumably as part of a free MOOC, journalism 101 courses, sort of a Journalism for Bloggers.

    I’m not sure what the content would be, as I am not a journalist, but the purpose would be to take a random blogger and teach that person how to conduct interviews, source facts, open doors, represent himself to A) raise his blogging to an identifiable level of journalism, B) help ensure the blogger falls under various shield laws available to journalists

    Are you aware of anything like that?

  4. Albert Bakker says

    I believe you. A lot is being said and a lot of claims are being made while not a whole lot is being substantiated and nothing is being proven.

    But that seems not to be much of a problem as long as we can use our ‘common sense’ to differentiate between facts and fabrication reliably enough to start wars over.

  5. hyphenman says

    Good morning wtfwhateverd00d,

    The short answer is no, I’m not aware of any such course, which does not mean one is not out there, in fact, I’d be willing to be it is.

    The longer answer is that such a course is irrelevant if not counter-productive. Any good editor can teach a reporter everything they need to know in less than two weeks. There rest is all practice.

    I would suggest reading the works of great journalists like George Orwell (“The Road To Wigan Pier” would be a great start) and Francis Flaherty’s “The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing,” is an excellent primer.

    Do all you can to make today a great day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

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