Wick Communications

About anonymous sourcing

In journalism on October 18, 2013 at 8:51 am
Watergate source Mark Felt from Vanity Fair

Watergate source Mark Felt from Vanity Fair

Montrose Daily Press Publisher Francis Wick is on the record with his latest brush with an anonymous sourcing, and here’s hoping his experience sparks a conversation over anonymous sources. From an email to me:

“… One of our three county commissioners had a medical emergency subsequently needing surgery. The county was very hush-hush given HIPPA regulations, we couldn’t get anyone on the record, and the family requested we (not) run a story. (Within a couple of days,) we’d received enough phone calls that I permitted us to use an anonymous source to break the story, however the county and family were adamant that we not run what we had because it was inaccurate. I explained that we were going to run what we had unless given specifics on the record.”

That story, published several days after the newspaper first began working the story, begins:

County Commissioner Ron Henderson has undergone a quadruple bypass procedure after suffering a heart attack and is recuperating at St. Mary’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Grand Junction, a source has told the Daily Press. …

That’s a big story. There are three county commissioners and when one of them is gravely ill, that means there may be gridlock in county government. Citizens have a right to know whether their elective officers are healthy enough to perform their duties. …

While that may be true, Francis says family and county staff didn’t like the story. They note a significant factual error – that Henderson suffered from fibrillations rather than a full-fledged heart attack – but the story was substantially correct. The commissioner had a serious heart condition that required bypass surgery.

The fact that the newspaper pushed the story forward prompted Henderson’s wife to confirm details, resulting in this lede two days later:

County Commissioner Ron Henderson did not suffer a heart attack, as reported in Thursday’s edition of the Daily Press, but was experiencing fibrillations and was taken to the emergency room of Montrose Memorial Hospital, his wife told the paper on Thursday.

The Daily Press is judicious with the use of anonymous sources, and you should be as well. The decision whether to use the anonymous information for a story that was bound to upset powerful people in the community was made at the top of the newspaper’s chain of command. That’s appropriate.

Some news sources rely on anonymous sources regularly. Some federal sources expect to be anonymous. In fact, the Washington press corps has a secret language that refers to some sources as “a source close to the White House” and another as “an administration source.”

Here’s the problem: Anonymity degrades credibility. Think of the anonymous posters on your website. Do you consider them as reliable as letter writers who use their real name? Likewise, sources in the newspaper. If the source won’t attach his name to his words, you have to wonder why.

For that reason, anonymous sources should be used very sparingly. I told Francis I thought the Daily Press handled the story of Henderson’s heart very well. I’m sure the staff wishes it got all the particulars correct the first time, but the fact that people in the know wouldn’t talk made that much, much harder to do. The county should have realized constituents had a right to know what was wrong with a top elected official and, to some degree, the errors are on the government in this case.

So when do you use anonymous sources?

  • Is the story important enough? Don’t use that card if the story is insignificant. It should be a front-page kind of story.
  • Did you talk it through? Reporters should never promise anonymity without first talking it over with editors. Editors may very well want to consult publishers. Publishers, I’m happy to consult on these matters from afar.
  • Did you exhaust other means? The Daily Press came at its story from several angles. The hospital, the county, the family all declined to comment. Only then should you be courting anonymous sources.
  • How trustworthy is your anonymous source? In the Montrose case, for instance, the commissioner’s sister or the hospital administrator might be considered good credible sources. A secretary in county government or the guy sweeping the hospital floor are obviously less trustworthy.
  • Will others corroborate your information? You might come back at someone in a position to know and say, “Listen, we know that Mr. X had a heart attack and is recuperating. I know you can’t be my primary source but will you tell us, off the record, whether we’ve got that right?”

Anonymous sources are sometimes necessary. Try to limit their use. Do your best to doublecheck the information they give.

Clay

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  1. Just wanted to ask for clarification on something. In your example of seeking an credible source to verify, would you offer an “off the record” verification immediately? Would it be better to seek verification first and wait for an “off the record” request?

  2. Good point, Jeff, and you are absolutely right. I guess I was envisioning a scenario like the one in Montrose in which they had already exhausted the opportunity for on-the-record sources. But by all means, yes, use your off-the-record tips to seek on-the-record confirmation. Thanks for clarifying.

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