When I was a young journalist working for CBC news, I was told I could not use information from an unnamed source unless I could corroborate it with at least one, preferably two other sources. My editors were fully engaged when a story using unnamed sources was proposed – they insisted on knowing the source’s name, there was a discussion about the source’s motives and how I might get the same information from a named source. This was 30 years ago, when anonymously delivered information was expected to be of the highest value to journalism – information about misspent public money, unethical or illegal behavior – the big stories that spoke to journalism’s duty to expose wrongdoing and corruption for the public good. Needless to say, under these rigorous controls, few of my “source’s say” stories every made it to air.
A reading of any Canadian newspaper today tells a very different story about how unnamed sources are used, particularly by political journalists. You could not be faulted for thinking that unnamed sources are never challenged and are given a free ride by reporters and editors, and not for the sake of exposing wrongdoing and corruption but rather for the sources’ self-serving motives of exposing the foibles and failures of political opponents, and for the reporters’ self-serving motives of increasing their cachet by adding behind-the-scenes colour and drama to their stories.
Anonymous sources are vital to good journalism. However, their use has also tarnished journalism’s reputation, devalued the quality of public discourse, and resulted in real harm to innocent individuals. The Arar case is studied as a cautionary tale in journalism schools across the country, as are scandals at the New York Times, the BBC, and other venerable journalistic institutions.
As with virtually every ethical issue facing journalists, the answer to how and when to use unnamed sources becomes one of judgment. What is the true value of the information this individual is attempting to get into the public sphere through the media? What are the reasons for demanding anonymity? Must the journalist grant it? If so, how can this source be described in the story so that readers can make their own judgements about the value of the information and the motives of the individual?
The unnamed source represents a real and pressing danger to journalism at the same time it is essential to good journalism. Debates about how to provide clear guidelines for their use are raging in newsrooms around the country, and it’s high time journalists were seized with this matter.