President Trump claims The Atlantic “made up” its aghasting Thursd
ay night report that the president has privately referred to dead American soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.” The magazine didn’t, as shown by subsequent confirmations by The Associated Press and other outlets. But it’s harder to refute claims of falseness when, as was the case here, a news organization relies solely on anonymous sources.
“These weak, pathetic, cowardly background ‘sources’ do not have the courage or decency to put their names to these false accusations because they know how completely ludicrous they are,” a former deputy White House press secretary tweeted Thursday night. Even some members of mainstream media, while praising The Atlantic’s reporting, called on the sources in the story to come forward.
Journalists have debated the ethics of this kind of attribution forever. They’ve also used it forever. The slam against unnamed sources is that they deprive readers of the ability to judge a report’s credibility for themselves. Further, the practice eliminates accountability for a source who speaks untruthfully or distorts information for a hidden personal or political agenda. Another flashing caution is that some of the audience doesn’t even understand what they’re seeing. A 2018 survey by the Media Insight Project reported that almost one-third of respondents believe not even the journalists themselves know the names of their “anonymous” sources (which is why “unnamed” or “confidential” is a better label).
The compelling counterargument is that without confidential sources, some essential stories would never get published. Often, a source demands confidentiality in exchange for information not because of cowardice or nefarious motives but because of a legitimate concern over retaliation.
The clashing benefits and harms necessitate that news outlets set criteria for when they’ll use confidential sources. This is a typical checklist:
- A source’s information is a vital part of a story the public needs to know.
- The story contains multiple firsthand sources giving consistent accounts. The higher the source count, the better. (The Atlantic’s story relied on four, though not for every revelation.)
- A source does not have a history of inaccuracy.
- There’s no way to report the story without confidential sources.
In addition to criteria for use, there are best practices:
- Assess a source’s motive. Is it apparently self-interest or public interest? (Still, I’d argue that motive is irrelevant if the information is true.)
- Don’t readily agree to confidentiality. Seek to persuade otherwise. (Some journalists don’t do this enough.)
- If sources insist on confidentiality, describe them as specifically as the sources will allow without identifying them. Readers can better judge credibility with an attribution such as “a senior FBI official who has seen the document” than an attribution such as “sources familiar with the situation.” (Again, some journalists don’t do this enough.)
- Tell readers why sources won’t allow publication of their names.
The criteria for use, obviously, are subjective. Which is why reliance on unnamed sources is rampant and sometimes excessive, especially in stories datelined Washington, D.C. The New York Times, for instance, reckoned with its overuse of such attribution following two significant errors by toughening standards in 2016. The Times, of course, was the foremost organization that allowed unnamed officials in the George W. Bush administration to build a phony case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, leading to a costly war in Iraq.
More recently, CNN was reminded of the danger of deviating from the customary requirement of multiple sources. Three journalists resigned in 2017 after publishing a not-ready article about a Congressional investigation into Trump’s Russian connections that was based on a single unidentified source. A retraction, editor’s note and apology followed.
The Atlantic article is a justified and valuable use of confidential sources. It’s justified because with the Trump administration’s history of retribution, this story likely never surfaces without protection for the individuals telling it. It’s valuable not only as another brutal portrayal of the character of a president seeking reelection, but also as probable insight into significant decisions such as Trump’s inaction on Russian bounties for American military lives.
Withholding identities does make some of the audience wonder if they can trust what they are reading in a story. But I’d argue that the public still can assess its trust on a larger scale: They can decide whether a news outlet’s reputation reassures them (or doesn’t) that the story wouldn’t be there if it were less than ironclad.
The Trump administration is the most audacious and consequential example of certain governments at all levels that engage in actions detrimental to the public, then seek to cloak them with secrecy, propaganda and punishment of internal dissent. In such climates, confidential sources that meet exacting criteria are an imperative tool to find the stories the public deserves to know. Not knowing is so much worse.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
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