Don’t agree to anonymous source: video

By · Monday, September 5th, 2011


Awhile back, we posted a brief introduction to Foofie, who is an identical replica of a stuffed animal my co-author had as a child. That post was prompted by an emailer who asked, “Who’s the bear on the bookshelf in your videos?” Here is what we said:

The bear is a dog, and his name is “Foofie.” Pronounce the “Foo” as in “foot,” and the “fie” as in “fee.” He’s the quiet type. So far, he pretty much has kept his thoughts to himself. But someday … you never know.

We thought that day had come today, when Foofie agreed to be part of our video. But, then came the deal-breaker: He wanted to remain anonymous. We just couldn’t agree to that request, for a number of reasons:

  1. The audience is deprived of the ability to judge the veracity of information
  2. The anonymous source might tell more than he or she really knows
  3. The entire journalistic concept of transparency is nullified

We support the use of identified sources in stories of all kinds. We also encourage reporters to be upfront with sources about their news organizations’ policies on the use of anonymous sources. While policies vary, news organizations generally tend to require that sources be identified.

In rare instances, an anonymous source might be approved, but that decision would come after wide-ranging discussion among many stakeholders. A reporter should never promise anonymity to a source; a reporter rarely has the authority to make that decision. One editor, alone, rarely has that authority, either.

The temptation is always there for a reporter to acquiesce to a source’s request because doing so would ensure that an interview will happen:

Why do sources even ask? Because sources sometimes are timid and unfamiliar with the reporting process. With certain issues or in some countries, they might be afraid of the consequences of speaking out. Or, taking a more sinister view, sources might want to exploit the system by hiding behind anonymity; they might not want to be held responsible for what they say.

Since the audience can never be sure of an anonymous source’s motives, it is the responsibility of journalists to ensure that sources be identified.

Sorry, Foofie, as much as you protested, we had to identify you because it is the right thing to do. Besides, you already were “out there,” and you have been for more than a year.

You can download our latest video to your iPod or other portable device. Or, you can view it — and others in the archive — via our YouTube playlist, right off the Web, or in the player on our home page.

Emilie Davis



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