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Q&A: Why do journalists use anonymous sources?

Len Downie Jr. is the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

July 05, 2017

Questions on whether journalists should use anonymous sources and report on leaked information continue to play a growing role in criticism of the press and federal government responses to scandals over the past year or more.

What ethical decisions are involved in agreeing to keep a source anonymous? How have anonymous sources shaped history? ASU Now spoke with Len Downie Jr., the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University's Cronkite School, to learn more.

Downie is the former executive editor and vice president of The Washington Post. During his 44 years in the Post newsroom, Downie also was an investigative reporter, editor on the local and national news staffs, London correspondent, and, from 1984 to 1991, managing editor under then-executive editor Ben Bradlee. As deputy metro editor from 1972 to 1974, Downie helped supervise the Post’s Watergate coverage. He also oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of every national election from 1984 through 2008.

During Downie’s 17 years as executive editor, The Washington Post won 25 Pulitzer prizes.

Q: Why do journalists agree to keep some of their sources anonymous?

A: In many cases, journalists can obtain significant information in the public interest only if they agree to keep the identity of the source confidential because being identified could jeopardize the source’s employment, freedom from legal jeopardy or even personal safety. Journalists agreeing to such confidentiality requests should be prepared to protect the source’s identity, no matter what the consequences, unless the source releases the journalist from the confidentiality agreement. News organizations should also be prepared to back their journalists in maintaining confidentiality agreements.

Q: What ethical decisions are involved in granting anonymity?

A: The information’s value and the source’s trustworthiness, motivation and personal knowledge of the information should all be weighed in the decision to grant confidentiality, as well as whether the information could be confirmed or obtained in some other way. In most cases, confidentiality should not be granted to a source making a personal attack. And sources should be warned that lying would abrogate a confidentiality agreement.

Q: If a newsroom receives leaked documents or information from an anonymous source, how would you expect that information to be vetted?

A: The information should be tested on other knowledgeable sources without violating the confidentiality agreement with the original source. Governments, institutions and people affected by the information should be given the opportunity to react to and comment on it. The journalist and news organization should be certain about the accuracy of the information and its expected impact before publication or broadcast.

Q: How have anonymous sources shaped history?

A: The most obvious — and yet only one of countless examples — is Watergate. None of the many sources in government to whom Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein granted confidentiality would have talked to them otherwise. More recently, the existence of the secret CIA prisons outside the United States, in which terrorist suspects underwent “enhanced interrogation,” would likely not have been revealed and closed if Washington Post reporter Dana Priest had not obtained information about them from confidential sources. In both of these cases, the reporters had to piece the stories together from many confidential sources through dogged reporting. Leaks by single sources of unsolicited information, as with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers or Edward Snowden and digital NSA documents, are relatively rare.

Q: Do journalists have legal protection from being required to publicly reveal anonymous sources?

A: Many states have “shield laws” that protect journalists in most instances from legal consequences of protecting the confidentiality of their sources. The protection varies from state to state and is subject to court rulings in exceptional cases. However, there is no federal shield law despite attempts to legislate one in Congress, and reporters have been threatened with jail for refusing to name confidential sources in federal cases. Notably, then-New York Times reporter Judy Miller was jailed for 85 days in 2005 for refusing to name a confidential source in federal grand jury investigation of the leaking of the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

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