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Weekly actionable tips for journalists to earn and sustain trust

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.


  • Here's how NPR lays out clearly the goals, pitfalls and guidelines behind their soucing decisions.
  • The Toronto Globe and Mail publishes its policy, and an editor explains in a column: "The reporters and their editors know who these “senior Canadian officials” are and have probably spoken with them before and trust them. That trust is necessary because if the information is wrong, it’s not the source’s credibility but the reporter’s and organization’s name on the line."
  • The New York Times includes this explanation in a piece on the topic: "Reporters and editors ask themselves: How does the source know this information? What’s the motivation for telling us? Has she or he proved reliable in the past? Are there ways to corroborate the information? Often we explain some of this background in the story, while still taking care to protect the source’s identity."
  • The Virginian-Pilot has a story online explaining its use of anonymous sources. 
  • Here's what SPJ's Code of Ethics says about anonymity.

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

2. You can also put the reference in the story itself — in a parenthetical, a clause or a mention on air. "Because of fear that speaking out would lead to dismissal from her job, we have allowed this source to remain unnamed, in accordance with our policy (link)."

3. Also look for chances to mention it in newsletters or on social media, where you can be more conversational. "This story includes an anonymous source, which is something we seldom do. Learn more about our strict criteria here." 


Step 3: Use the same criteria for wire or partner content

You are held accountable for everything you share with your audience. Their perceptions of content you publish from a wire or syndication service, or from other newsrooms within your company or umbrella organization, affect their perceptions of your journalism. 

And that's absolutely fair. If you decide that an Associated Press story about Congress deserves a place on your website, in your newscast or in your print edition, it is not reasonable to expect that every user notices every byline or credit and judges each piece of content individually. And as perceptions of "the media" are continually being reinforced or challenged, every day is a new opportunity to shed light on your decisions and defend your credibility. 

If you run a story produced by a journalist outside your newsroom, earn trust by showing the standards behind that content as well. Find out what policy governs *their* use of anonymous sources, and link to it. (Here's the explanation from the Associated Press.) If you're running content from a source that doesn't publish an explanation, be an advocate for your audience and ask why not.

A few other things to consider

— Joy Mayer, Trusting News director
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Trusting News aims to demystify trust in news and empower journalists to take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust. It is a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute

Copyright © 2021 Trusting News, All rights reserved.

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