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Naming names: Why journalists hate granting anonymity (and why they sometimes have to)

By the SPJ Wash board:

KUOW last week aired a controversial one-on-one interview with an unnamed man who had been punched in the face after walking around downtown Seattle wearing a swastika armband.

Many listeners condemned KUOW, arguing the station amplified a hateful agenda by allowing the man to speak anonymously and unchallenged.

KUOW journalist Bill Radke on Friday apologized for the interview: “Our humanity is precious and it’s vulnerable. Journalists have a responsibility to guard it. I knew that, but I let my duty slip this week. I’m sorry for that. You should expect better from KUOW. I promise to do better.”

The following is meant to shed light on an important and misunderstood part of journalism: The unnamed source.

When and why journalists grant anonymity

Journalists always prefer to name sources and granting anonymity is a difficult and careful consideration. 

Anonymity is usually reserved for sources who would be substantially harmed if their identities were revealed.  

On certain beats, like national security and business, journalists must work around government clearances or corporate policies in order to scratch below the surface of official statements and press releases and get to the truth. This means stories with phrases like, “the official, who asked not to be named because she has not been authorized to speak about the deal…”

However, as any journalist will tell you, the times she or he grants anonymity is greatly outnumbered by the times she or he is asked to grant it. That is, we are often asked by sources to keep their names out of the story. Most of the time we say no.

Journalists are careful to consider a source’s motives and decide whether their identity is worth protecting. When a reporter grants anonymity, it comes with an expectation that the reporter will not divulge the source’s name under any circumstances; reporters have gone to jail to protect their sources’ identities. We always consider how sources can exploit these pledges. For example, if a campaign operative sees an advantage in putting out misinformation about the other campaign, they could use an unscrupulous journalist to spread lies without those lies ever being traced back to them.

The Society of Professional Journalists provides useful guidelines for reporters on the issue. SPJ’s Position Paper on anonymous sources provides two guiding principles:

  1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.

Journalists know that readers trust named sources more than unnamed sources, and we want your trust. We try to find ways to tell stories using only named sources; if that’s not possible, we try to  independently verify things told to us by unnamed sources (if a “police source” tells us something, we’ll try to get a police report to back it up).

  1. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

As noted before, journalists know that some sources will try to play us for their own advantage. We take that into consideration before ever granting anonymity.

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