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Citing the invisible man: The media's love affair with anonymous sources

A clandestine meeting. Trench coats and cigarettes on the pier. Your source has what you need, the exact information you've been looking for to complete what's sure to be a Pulitzer prize-winning piece. But here's the catch: You can't reveal his identity.

For those who haven't worked in journalism, this might be the sort of scene that comes to mind when one thinks of anonymous sources. The truth is far less romantic.

In reality, finding someone who knows valuable information and is willing to share it with you, but who's not willing to go on record or have their name in print, is extremely frustrating. Few things are more discouraging than having the perfect quotation or insight in your notes that you can’t use. The source’s reticence may stem from concern for their safety, reputation, or career (or for more nefarious reasons, which we’ll get into later), but in any regard, you're out of luck.

Or are you? What if you could still publish the information, but just leave the source's name and personal details out? Problem solved, right? Not exactly.

Why do journalists use anonymous sources?

There was a time when it was considered poor form to cite an anonymous source in published work. Today, it's rare to get through an entire news article without encountering the use of one. Why? Because they require less effort of a journalist than hunting down sources willing to go on record, and they increase the chances of a reporter being the first to go to print with the story. Many publishers view being first as more essential than anything else, including accuracy or thoroughness.

Now, before we go any further, it's worth clarifying that anonymous sources are not the same as anonymous tipsters. Getting an anonymous tip to look into something that later becomes the subject of an article is completely different than incorporating an anonymous source into the article. One puts you on the right track, one serves as a journalistic crutch.

So what should a journalist do with an anonymous source?

Whenever possible, avoid using them.

Really, if citing anonymous sources can be avoided, it should be. To skeptical readers, articles relying on anonymous sources to substantiate them read as little more than gossip. After all, a source without a name could be anyone—their idiot neighbor who mows his lawn in the rain, or their racist aunt who calls restaurant waiters “boy.” Or, how does a reader know that the journalist behind the article isn't just fabricating their own story for the sake of ratings or page views? It's not as though that hasn't happened before. If there's no name to go with a source, how could anyone verify or disprove what they've said?

Particularly in an age in which trust of the media is at an all-time low, we need to give readers substantiated facts whenever possible. Anything less just erodes readers' already tenuous trust and awards legitimacy to critics' attacks.

If you must use an anonymous source, don't make it your only one.

So you’re going with it. Fine, but it’d better not be the only one supporting your findings. Do your due diligence before publishing and track down others who can help inform your writing. If an anonymous source's story is true, there will be others—verifiable sources—on the periphery who can help to paint a broader picture and add legitimacy to your article, making any claims made by the anonymous source much more palatable to a reader.

Remember why anonymous sources suck: They have no accountability.

Your source may seem genuine. They may be 100 percent certain that they saw what they saw, or heard what they heard. But ultimately, even if they're being completely honest with you, they could still be incorrect. And if they are, who's going to bear the consequences of being wrong? You are. Now, what if the source's intentions are less honorable? What if they're a disgruntled employee looking to get back at their employer by passing along a juicy, completely contrived story to a journalist?

My suggestion is to approach writing an article as you would making your case in court. Relying on an anonymous source is akin to having the only person testifying on your behalf in court show up wearing a mask, refusing to give the judge their name.

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