How to Work With Anonymous Sources

How to Work With Sources Who Don't Want Their Names Published

A journalist interviewing woman
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How to Work With Anonymous Sources

Whenever possible you want your sources to speak “on the record.” That means their full name and job title (when relevant) can be used in the news story.

But sometimes sources have important reasons – beyond simple shyness - for not wanting to speak on the record. They will agree to be interviewed, but only if they aren’t named in your story. This is called an anonymous source, and the information they provide is typically known as “off the record.”

When Are Anonymous Sources Used?

Anonymous sources aren’t necessary – and in fact are inappropriate - for the vast majority of stories reporters do.

Let’s say you’re doing a simple person-on-the-street interview story about how local residents feel about high gas prices. If someone you approach doesn’t want to give their name, you should either convince them to speak on the record or simply interview someone else. There’s absolutely no compelling reason to use anonymous sources in these types of stories.

Investigations

But when reporters do investigative reports about malfeasance, corruption or even criminal activity, the stakes can be much higher. Sources may risk being ostracized in their community or even fired from their job if they say something controversial or accusatory. These types of stories often require the use of anonymous sources.

Example

Let’s say you’re investigating allegations that the local mayor has been stealing money from the town treasury.
You interview one of the mayor’s top aides, who says the allegations are true. But he’s afraid that if you quote him by name, he’ll be fired. He says he’ll spill the beans about the crooked mayor, but only if you keep his name out of it.

What Should You Do?

Evaluate the information your source has. Does he have solid evidence the mayor is stealing, or merely a hunch?

If he’s got good evidence, then you probably need him as a source.

Talk to your source. Ask him how likely it is that he’d be fired if he spoke publicly. Point out that he’d be doing the town a public service by helping to expose a corrupt politician. You may still be able to convince him to go on the record.

Find other sources to confirm the story, preferably sources who will speak on the record. This is especially important if your source’s evidence is flimsy. Generally, the more independent sources you have to verify a story, the more solid it is.

Talk to your editor or to a more experienced reporter. They can probably shed some light on whether you should use an anonymous source in the story you’re working on.

After following these steps, you may decide you still need to use an anonymous source.

But remember, anonymous sources don’t have the same credibility as named sources. For this reason, many newspapers have banned the use of anonymous sources entirely.

And even papers and news outlets that don’t have such a ban will seldom, if ever, publish a story based entirely on anonymous sources.

So even if you have to use an anonymous source, always try to find other sources who will speak on the record.

The Most Famous Anonymous Source

Undoubtedly the most famous anonymous source in the history of American journalism was Deep Throat. That was the nickname given to a source who leaked information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigated the Watergate scandal of the Nixon White House.

In dramatic, late-night meetings in a Washington, D.C., parking garage, Deep Throat provided Woodward with information on the criminal conspiracy in the government. In exchange, Woodward promised Deep Throat anonymity, and his identity remained a mystery for more than 30 years.

Finally, in 2005, Vanity Fair revealed Deep Throat’s identity: Mark Felt, a top FBI official during the Nixon years.

But Woodward and Bernstein have pointed out that Deep Throat mostly gave them tips on how to pursue their investigation, or simply confirmed information they had received from other sources.

Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post's editor-in-chief during this period, often made a point of forcing Woodward and Bernstein to get multiple sources to confirm their Watergate stories, and, whenever possible, to get those sources to speak on the record.

In other words, even the most famous anonymous source in history was no substitute for good, thorough reporting and plenty of on-the-record information.

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