Whether or not to use anonymous sources has been an ongoing debate on the Observer’s Facebook page and online poll lately.
Really, it’s been a constant debate in the newspaper industry for years and years. Does a reporter use an anonymous source when it’s necessary to get the information to the public, or does a reporter insist on using names for accountability?
Both sides have valid arguments, and different publications take different stances.
At the Observer, we insist on the accountability of naming the people we quote. Exceptions would be reserved only for extreme cases, such as a source whose safety would be endangered if he or she were identified but who had information members of the public needed for their own safety.
We haven’t had any of those situations come up in recent years.
If someone directs us to another source of information that provides everything we need to know, we wouldn’t necessarily need to quote that person, so he or she could remain anonymous. We’d have to name the second source we actually quoted, though.
But for the most part, we operate on the stance that identifying the people who provide us with information allows for better transparency and accountability, both on our part and the part of the individuals acting as sources.
If we name people in our articles, our readers can decide for themselves if that person is credible. Our job is not to spoon feed you conclusions, but to provide you with information and let you come to your own conclusions.
Yes, of course, it is our job to evaluate people’s credibility and report appropriately based on that judgment.
Still, you shouldn’t have to blindly trust us. We should give you the facts you need to form your own opinion about the source and information.
Sometimes, to get both sides of a controversial story, we may need to quote people whose credibility is hard to evaluate or has been questioned. Then it’s even more important that we’re open about identities to let readers form their own conclusions.
Plus, using names provides accountability for the journalist and the source. When a reporter provides the name, readers can go straight to that person to verify facts, so the reporter had better get it right or expect consequences.
If we don’t tell you who we talked to, how do you know the person is who we say or if he or she even really exists? We do hope we have our readers’ trust, but the less we ask for it and the more we provide information instead, the more we can show trustworthiness.
People are also less likely to make inflammatory or inaccurate statements when they know their names will be attached to those statements and they’ll have to answer to the public, as well as their own friends, family and co-workers.
Of course, some people will be accurate and civil no matter what, but others, well, not so much.
Just as we believe in transparency for government, we believe in it for ourselves, so we name our sources.