Q & A With Dan Gillmor on Anonymous Sourcing

Dan Gillmor is the author of two books and is a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I spoke with Dan on the phone to get his thoughts on anonymous sourcing. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are your thoughts about anonymous sourcing in the media?

It’s ridiculously overdone. It is one of the things that is ruining the credibility of traditional news media.

How can anonymous sourcing affect reader trust? Do you think it’s something an average reader notices?

I can’t say what an average reader thinks or notices — I haven’t seen any data on that. That being said, I think someone who is reading or listening to a report where people who refuse to be identified are being quoted has a right to wonder whether the source actually exists and what else they’re not being told, including what axe an anonymous source may have to grind.

Do you think journalists may be too quick offer or grant anonymous sourcing?

The evidence seems pretty strong that the answer is yes, they’re certainly quick to do it.

Do you think that maybe sources are asking for anonymity more than they used to?

I haven’t been in the daily journalism field for a long time, so I don’t know. I do know that I almost never was willing to grant anonymity myself. To the extent that I did, I regret it.

In what situation would you grant anonymity?

It’s arguably justified if the journalist has an exemplary track record of being accurate and nuanced, and if there’s some reason that revealing the source’s identity would put the source in serious jeopardy. It’s hard for me to come up with any other scenario where I would even think about endorsing it.

If the source provides documentary evidence, that eases it a little bit. It still raises the question, though, what’s the motivation here?

Would you consider being fired as “serious jeopardy”? I’ve seen anonymity granted to people not authorized to speak about a matter.

It’s possible to come up with a case where one could consider that justified. In general though, no. If you’re so appalled by what’s going on inside your company, you should leave and then speak out. If you’re leaking something that your organization legitimately can’t talk about publicly, then you’re probably acting unethically.

It’s kind of funny to read that a source is “familiar with” something — a matter, a conversation, a situation.

That’s just the new terminology for ‘sources.’ The Wall Street Journal is an exemplar of that linguistic trickery. I’d speculate they do this because readers learned to disbelieve or be suspicious of articles with ‘sources said.’ I hope readers now become suspicious of things that say ‘people familiar with the situation’ or words to that effect.

Whatever wordplay a news organization uses, it’s still a flag that says ‘believe this at your peril.’

You mentioned The Wall Street Journal. Are there other news organizations that you think are particularly bad offenders? 

The New York Times is another. You see them so often, I think examples of non-egregious anonymous sourcing are the rarities. There’s almost a humor to it now.

I don’t always see journalists give the reason why anonymity was granted. If this was done more often, do you think it would help reader trust?

Some organizations do require a published reason for granting anonymity. Often, the reason is laughable, though. If people are going to laugh out loud about the reason you granted anonymity, maybe you shouldn’t grant it.

It would help with reader trust in the very rare case that a person told a journalist what’s going on in a regime that has a reputation for killing people — we get that. I still have my doubts about trusting the source, but I can understand why they were granted anonymity.

Is there anything else you want to mention?

If a bunch of news organizations got together and said they wouldn’t do any anonymous sources for, say, six months, to see if their audiences are more poorly informed — that would be interesting to see. It would never happen, but one can always hope.

An anonymous press briefing by the U.S. Department of State

3/25/15: Special Briefing: Senior State Department Official

QUESTION: Who are you today? Senior State —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m a senior State Department official, and you guys can report this as – any of this as soon as we land.

QUESTION: We can’t?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You can. Can.

Hat tip to Lizzie O’Leary.

Anonymous sourcing rules at major organizations

At The New York Times:
Sources Say was inspired by Margaret Sullivan, who wrote about tracking anonymous sourcing here: ‘AnonyWatch’: Tracking Nameless Quotations in The Times.

Sullivan wrote about how insidious the practice of anonymous sourcing is and how much the public despises it:

ERIC Schmitt remembers being surprised when, as a member of a Times newsroom committee on reporting practices, he was given information about what bothered readers of The Times most. It wasn’t political bias, or factual errors, or delivery problems.

“The No. 1 complaint, far and away, was anonymous sources,” Mr. Schmitt, a longtime and well-respected national security reporter in the Washington bureau, told me last week. “It goes to the heart of our credibility.”

In December 2015, Sullivan asked Times executive editor Dean Baquet about anonymous sources.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

He added: “This was system failure that we have to fix.” However, Mr. Baquet said it would not be realistic or advisable to ban anonymous sources entirely from The Times.

In March 2016, Sullivan wrote about the Times’ new policies on anonymous sourcing:

Although the policy does not ban anonymity, it is intended to significantly reduce what [Matt Purdy] characterized as an overreliance on unnamed sources.

In July 2016, Phil Corbett, The Times’ associate managing editor for standards, told Liz Spayd that anonymous sourcing dropped 30 percent in four months.