about this sitesee Meranda's resumesee clips and work sampleskeep in touch

Weighing anonymous sources

I just realized that tomorrow will mark a first for me. Not necessarily a good first either.

In a sidebar to a front-page story, my name will be on a story that bears an anonymous source. Not wholly anonymous — her first name and her relationship to a student at one of the schools is with it — but still anonymous to nearly everyone but me and the school all the same.

It has weighed on me much of the week. I cringe when I read newspapers and magazines that quote “a spokesman at the institute” or “a high level legislative aid” or whatever. And I turn down people who “don’t want to be quoted” several times a week because I can’t and won’t offer anonymity. So it was with unease that I even bridged the topic with my editor.

When I first talked to the woman, I wasn’t even sure I would use her. I seriously considered just not including it, just not even telling my editors I’d talked to her. I was prepared for my editors to say no, and that would be that and understandably so. She wouldn’t be part of my story at all.

But as I tried to find other sources who “would do,” the reality set in. Her ordeal was something we haven’t talked about before precisely because we haven’t had someone who went through it. It is something everyone wants to know about, something everyone is scared of and her family’s experience is something they all could learn from — and hopefully they will.

Man, I feel like there is so much weight riding on those seven inches. It’s crazy. I mean, tomorrow’s paper will be laid out tonight, printed and delivered by morning. By this time tomorrow it will be old news. Chances are, readers won’t blink an eye. But for me, this is a huge issue.

I trust my reporting. And I really do think the anonymity was the proper way to present it, for the child’s sake. I think Jan, my ethics prof, would be proud of how much I seriously thought this through. More than it probably deserves. But then, it’s my reputation and my paper’s credibility on the line when we choose to “protect the identity” of a source.

(And if I’m being vague, forgive me. I don’t talk about the specific stories I work on or my sources because I think that’s murky water. But this was an ethical inner-dilemma I felt I should document and learn from.)

2 Responses to “Weighing anonymous sources”

  1. Charles Says:

    Don’t sweat it. As long as you’re sure that she’s telling the truth, it’s valid.

    After all, people often get quoted when they’re telling bare-faced lies – people in court, people who have been caught out doing things who deny all wrongdoing.

    Presumably the difference here is that it’s something like an assault or similar. (You haven’t linked, how can we know?) As long as it’s not an anonymous allegation against someone named, and you’re sure about it, you have to see it as part of the process of getting closer to the truth. Which is what it’s about, yes?

    The water gets far murkier when you have people who have agendas who don’t want to be named. Think of how Valerie Plame’s name came out. That’s when it strays too far.

  2. Howard Owens Says:

    Every reporter should be as concerned and conscientious about using an anonymous source. They were, journalism would be better and democracy would be better served.

    Don’t ever let using an anonymous source become old hat. Question, question, question yourself every time the idea comes up.