By Julie Pike, Editor-in-Chief
Starting with the publication of an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month, the topic of anonymous sources has been prevalent both in my courses and at The Free Press.
So I took the liberty of asking local journalists and professionals about their guidelines and standards with anonymous sources at the recent forum hosted by the Maine Humanities Council, “What’s Going on With the News?” The forum panel featured Erin Rhoda, the Maine Focus editor at Bangor Daily News, Cliff Schectman, Executive Editor of the Portland Press Herald and Michael J. Socolow, an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.
In general, their advice is to avoid anonymous sources at all costs and to try to find ways to obtain that information from another source on the record. But what if there is absolutely no way to get a piece of information on the record?
Lately, at the Free Press, I’ve run into instances where writers are finding that some of their sources would like to remain anonymous. This places an editor in a tricky ethical situation, as the panel said at last week’s event.
The Associated Press also has a simple set of guidelines to follow when encountering anonymous sources. The information from those sources should only be used if the material is not an opinion, and is vital to the story; the material would not be available except under the conditions of an anonymous source, and the source is reliable and in a position to have accurate information.
Another common theme that has emerged from the discussion of anonymous sources is what the motive is of that source to keep their identity unknown. This may be for fear of backlash for speaking out or fear of compromising their job, which was most likely true in the article from the New York Times.
There are also instances where sources should remain anonymous for their own privacy, such as if the source is a victim of a crime.
However, journalists can use anonymous sources to their advantage when covering a big topic, as we’ve seen with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their investigations in the Watergate cover-up. Sometimes anonymous sources are the only way to get the truth out there. As a news organization, we believe that our readers deserve to know the whole truth.
While I believe that anonymous sources alone do not give readers an adequate amount of information that they can believe, when those sources are combined with other extensive research and sources on the record, they can really bring a story together.
As student journalists I think it’s important that we are faced with making these tough ethical decisions, so we have the chance to face similar situations as any other local or national newspaper.