The ethics of quoting anonymous sources has for long been the subject of concern and debate in serious journalistic circles. In the wake of the Jayson Blair affair, responsible mainstream media introduced (at least in principle if not in practice) a limitation on the use of unnamed sources including the requirement that editors be told the name of a source to whom a reporter has promised confidentiality. (Blair was the New York Times national reporter who was found guilty in 2003 of publishing fictitious stories and plagiarized material).
In his sensational October 28, 2014 article in The Atlantic which has reverberated around the world, Jeffrey Goldberg quoted an anonymous senior Obama administration official as saying “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,”
Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times also blogs on the Public Editor’s Journal. On March 28 she posted a blog on an issue which, to a large extent, parallels Goldberg’s chickenshit article. She wrote about gratuitous anonymous quotations, the kind that allow people to speculate, offer personal criticism or get a self-serving (often political) message out without taking any responsibility for it. She referred to a March 15 article about Congressional Democrats’ fear that President Obama’s sinking popularity is threatening their prospects in this year’s midterm elections in which the following passage appears:
“One Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Obama was becoming ‘poisonous’ to the party’s candidates. At the same time, Democrats are pressing senior aides to Mr. Obama for help from the political network.”
And analogous to Goldberg’s vivid allusion to PM Netanyahu, Sullivan commented
“The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper.”
In a lecture delivered on April 1, 2014 titled “Anonymous sources: leaving journalism’s false god behind”, John Christie, editor in chief of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting quoted Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of the NY Times writing 10 years ago:
“Since I’ve been in this job, use of anonymous sources has been the substantive issue raised most often by readers. as Leonard Wortzel of Atlanta wrote, “whenever I come across a phrase like ‘according to a high official’ I translate it to mean ‘I, THE REPORTER, WILL NOW STATE MY OPINION AND DISGUISE IT AS NEWS’ …”. [emphasis added]
Okrent further suggested a new policy for using anonymous sources:
Treat permission to use an anonymous source like a fire extinguisher behind a glass door – “Break glass only in case of an emergency.”
During his lecture, Christie said:
“The tragedy of the overuse of anonymous source reporting is that we in the business have known for decades that we are abusing it; have known for decades that readers abhor it; and have promised for decades that we are going to toss this false god into the abyss”.
And he asked:
“Who stands for the best traditions of quality journalism? You might hope that the acknowledged best-in-the business news organization, The New York Times, would be setting that high standard for credibility. But that is not always the case. Its policies are strong – use anonymous sources sparingly, have a strong reason and explain them in detail. And it has one ombudsman after another – they called them the public editor – saying the right thing over and over again about anonymous sources”.
He suggested that all a reporter needs to make use of fresh material is a thing that Hemingway recommends you acquire if you don’t already have one: It’s called a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.
The SPJ Code of Ethics requires that journalists identify sources whenever feasible as the public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability. It also requires that journalists always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.
The chapter “Ethical Issues Related to Sources” in the University of Iowa course on “The elements of journalism” advises the use of anonymous sources only with extreme caution and presciently alluding to Goldberg’s article, it stresses
“And Never Solely For The Purpose Of Expressing An Opinion About Someone Else”.