Today's trust tip: Bring clarity to your use of anonymous sources
Hi there. Joy here.
(This elaborates on one of our earliest editions of Trust Tips.)
Responsible journalists have strict standards for when and why they allow a source to go unnamed in a story. The bar is typically pretty high — there is no way to report this full story without granting anonymity, and specific people in the newsroom have to assess the situation and sign off.
And yet, too many news consumers don't know that. And we're not explaining ourselves clearly enough.
A bit of research: Pew has found journalists’ use of anonymous sources affects trust. And the Media Insight Project found "... 42 percent of the public are either unsure what an anonymous source is or believe the journalists themselves do not know the source’s identity. Of these, 12 percent believe journalists just take information from people whose identities they don’t know and then publish it. Another 17 percent think journalists get information from people whose identities are unknown to them, confirm what they are told, and then publish that."
It should not be a surprise to readers of this newsletter that journalists do not get automatic credit for their ethics, thoughtfulness, consistency and integrity. So, why are we allowing confusion on this issue to continue? And what should be done to enhance our credibility?
We have three simple steps for you.
Step 1: Publish your guidelines
Newsroom policies — or at least some version of them — should be public whenever possible. And stating clearly your commitment to ethical, responsible sourcing is especially key.
Step 2: Mention the policy every time it applies
Please do not assume that once you have publicly shared your criteria, your audience will find it, remember it and know when it applies.
Users care about the policy governing the use of anonymous sources when they are consuming a story featuring an anonymous source. Consider the experience of consuming stories like this one from the New York Times, which seems to assume that writing "according to four people familiar with his condition" is sufficient. The lack of further explanation or justification presumes an automatic trust that just does not exist.
There are many benefits — and no significant downside, aside from giving journalists one more thing to think about — to linking to or mentioning the policy every single time you let a source go unnamed.
That can be done easily in a few ways:
1. Put it in an editor's note at the top of the story, as The Michigan Daily did here.