9 things to know about anonymous sources

President Trump and his administration have complained about leaks, and condemned the use of anonymous sources. Former President Barack Obama prosecuted suspected leakers.

But what has the use of anonymous sources in journalism traditionally been? And how should news consumers regard information from anonymous sources?

On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, "Remember, when you hear the words 'sources say' from the Fake Media, often times those sources are made up and do not exist."

So why do journalists use anonymous sources? For answers, MPR News host Kerri Miller turned to three experts:

Dana Priest — Washington Post investigative reporter who teaches journalism at University of Maryland's Phillip Merrill School of Journalism

Mei-Ling Hopgood — professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism

Barton Gellman — senior fellow at The Century Foundation

1) It's hard to trust a story that uses anonymous sources. Why do journalists keep their sources anonymous?

"I'm sure the use of anonymous sources infuriates readers. I mean, when I read a story, I want to know who's telling the journalist that story. But unfortunately, it's not really up to the journalist. ... But it is the government's decision, and the decision of the individuals who are speaking to reporters, to withhold their name. It is not the journalist's choice. The journalist has to make this agreement — this kind of pact — that they will honor the confidentiality in exchange for information they couldn't get themselves without the sources." — Dana Priest

2) What about information coming out of the White House? Why would those sources need to be anonymous?

"It's not just a Trump phenomenon — it's for every administration. Part of it's political. They just want the president to have the attention ... that's on non-controversial issues. On controversial issues, sometimes an administration decides to cooperate with a reporter to get information out there, but not as an official statement by the government. Maybe it's a trial balloon on a certain kind of policy. Or maybe it's something controversial and they really want the public to know they're debating this seriously. ... (In the case of President Trump), there are people who disagree with what is happening and one of the ways they can express that disagreement without losing their job is to cooperate with reporters and tell them things. Those are some of the many reasons reporters need to, are forced to use anonymous sources, and why the government actually uses anonymous sources." — Dana Priest

3) How can journalists be trusted to use anonymous sources correctly?

"Great journalism organizations like the Washington Post have standards that they set. ... Many journalism organizations have standards that are written and that hold their reporters to a high standard of sourcing. The [Society of Professional Journalists] code of ethics in particular — No. 1 on their ethics paper is identify sources whenever feasible and give the public as much information as possible on source reliability. And No. 2, be critical of sources' motives before promising anonymity. ... So I think it's misleading to say journalists are being unwieldy about their use of anonymous sources." — Mei-Ling Hopgood

4) How should we assess a journalist's use of anonymous sources?

"You go to Google and you Google the journalist. And what is their record for journalism? If someone is inaccurate all the time — and we do run corrections — eventually they're gonna be fired from news outlets. ... As an outsider, you have the ability to look at a reporter's credentials and then to judge how you're going to see their use of anonymous sources in that context. ... We're not as transparent about our process as we could be, but we are transparent about our people, and we do have standards that in the newsroom they must live by." — Dana Priest

5) With hugely consequential stories, how do and should editors and journalists decide when the use of anonymous sources is OK?

"Because we in the United States, the media, is not under prior censorship — the government cannot censor us like it can in Britain if it's a national security issue, or in Israel, but the courts have protected us against that. That puts the responsibility on newspapers that have obtained classified information through their reporting mechanism to make sure that they are not damaging national security but are giving readers information they consider to be very important. And the way you do that is to try to talk with the government about their concerns, listen to their concerns, have other people brought into the conversation that can help you assess those concerns. But in the end, you still need to convince readers that what you're saying is accurate, even if you're not telling them who said it ... And the way that good reporters still do it now is to give you details that would, as a reader, lend more authenticity to a story." — Dana Priest

6) How can we know the difference between opinion and reporting?

"This is a huge problem in our industry now. It's especially a problem on television. Many of the 'news shows' are really talk shows. And they have pundits who are giving their opinion and they're not always news journalists or straight journalists. So as a reader or a viewer, I listen for the words, 'my sources say.' If a person's opining on a subject they happen to have just read in the Washington Post ... I don't think that's good enough. And I think hosts should not be having people on whose sole purpose is just to give you their opinion of something. And they look like — purposefully they're trying to deceive in a way — they look like they actually did that reporting and in fact they didn't. So I think viewers need to weigh in with media outlets." — Dana Priest

7) Is President Trump right when he calls mainstream media "fake news?"

"[It's] not the president criticizing the media, because presidents always do that. It's what he's criticizing, it's how he's criticizing them. It's not just leaking. It's not just leaking sensitive information he says shouldn't be out there. It is challenging the credibility of the media itself and calling us fake news. That is what the Russians do. It's what the non-mainstream media is trying to say all the time. It's one thing to say we may be lazy sometimes, we may be sloppy, we make mistakes, but in the main, we are not fake news. And that's what's really different about his criticism of the media." — Dana Priest

8) Can't we just get our information from official sources and not use anonymous sources?

"We would know almost nothing to have a real debate over public policy and anything to do with foreign policy or national security if we relied only on the official statements of the government. We would have no idea about much of what's going on." — Barton Gellman

9) How should a news organization decide whether or not to allow a source to remain anonymous?

"I think there's actually a pretty basic test or basic question that a news organization should ask itself when deciding about anonymous sources. It's an easy question to ask, it's sometimes hard to decide. But the principle is, what decision here will maximum information of value to the public. Sometimes the fact that someone is trying to be anonymous or when you tell them, 'I simply won't print it if it comes from the spokesman of the department anonymously when it's announcing official policy,' you get more that way. Sometimes you get more that people can only say if they have some protection. Because there are Snowden cases in which someone believes that a disclosure is so important that he or she is willing to risk job, career, and even criminal prosecution, but there's a lot more we need to know that any given source is not going to say, 'I'm going to throw away my life for this.'" — Barton Gellman

This show is part of our summer media series. To hear more, you can listen to our installments on media bias, fake news, how MPR makes editorial decisions, a roundtable discussion on the media and the influence of conservative media.

Use the audio player above to hear the full segment.

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