President Donald Trump has a new enemy in the media: Anonymous sources.
“[Journalists] shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” Trump told a cheering crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. “Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.”
There’s a good reason Trump is attacking the media’s use of anonymous sources: It’s the journalistic mechanism that allows people to leak information to the press with a far lower fear of retribution. And boy, are there leaks.
In the first month of the Trump administration, we’ve seen a virtually constant stream of leaks appear in the press, many that paint Trump and his administration in a negative light, from details about the president’s impulsive personality to reports of Trump’s campaign staying in “constant” communication with Russian intelligence officials.
Trump appears to be going after the use of anonymous sources as part of his administration’s crackdown on leaks; it’s a weak link in the chain between publications and reader trust, and Trump knows it.
“Reporters and editors trust [information from anonymous sources], sometimes risking their reputation on it,” writes Liz Spayd, public editor of the New York Times. “Readers, on the other hand, couldn’t be more suspicious—and with reason. The descriptions [of unnamed sources] generally tilt far more toward protecting the sources than giving readers confidence in what they said.”
In other words, anonymous sources are a necessary evil in the world of journalism.
Granting a source anonymity gives him or her the opportunity to “provide valuable information that is in the public interest and may not be known otherwise,” says Alan Miller, president and CEO of the News Literacy Project. “The cons are that individuals granted anonymity are less accountable for their comments, and readers are less able to judge how the source is in a position to know that the information is true and whether they have an agenda or ax to grind.”
Although readers must be particularly careful when assessing stories based on unnamed sources, there are a few key questions to ask when reading stories based on anonymous sources that will help fine-tune your “fake news” detector.
1) How many sources?
“More sources are always better, but there’s no magic number,” says Barney Calame, who served as deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal for 12 years. Calame also served as public editor of the New York Times after his retirement from WSJ in 2004.
A “report based on a single anonymous source” should throw up a big red flag, says Miller. It doesn’t mean the story is incorrect—plenty of accurate stories are based on a single anonymous source—but there’s good reason to remain skeptical and look for further reporting before you make a conclusion about the report’s accuracy.
Take, for example, this NBC News story about Russia turning over NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who is living under asylum in the country, to Trump, who has in the past called Snowden a “traitor.” The report is based on the claims of a single “senior U.S. official who has analyzed a series of highly sensitive intelligence reports detailing Russian deliberations.” Snowden’s lawyers refuted the allegation. Given the light sourcing and the denials from someone with direct knowledge of Snowden’s situation, there’s good reason to remain highly skeptical of this one.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have this Washington Post report about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn‘s discussion with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. It’s based on a whopping “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls.”
2) How are the sources described?
The way a report describes anonymous sources will tell you a lot about the veracity of their information.
Giving readers “enough information to have some sense of who or why the source is in a position to know that what are saying is true,” says Miller, is a crucial element in the trustworthiness of an anonymously sourced report.
Even if an article has multiple unnamed sources, says Calame, it’s important that they “don’t come from the same office/department and aren’t in the same change of command.” The reason? One of the sources might just be repeating what he or she heard from a colleague.
“Too often I found journalists prepared to claim two sources when one of them had heard it from their boss, the other source,” he says.
When assessing the descriptions of anonymous sources, Calame explains, there are two key elements to look for: “(1) how the source knows about or had access to the information he/she is divulging, and (2) what is motivating the source to provide the information.”
Miller adds that readers should also be skeptical of reports that offer “no indication of why the source was granted anonymity.”
3) Did the subject of the story have a chance to respond?
No reporter worth her weight in scoops will write a critical story about someone without giving that person a chance to respond. This is doubly important for stories based on anonymous sources.
“If the people or institutions being criticized by anonymous sources aren’t given a chance to respond, that is an obvious red flag,” says Calame.
Remember, however, that just because the subject of a report is given the chance to respond doesn’t mean they will. If they do respond, read what they say carefully.
Take, for example, a recent Associated Press report about a draft memo in which the Trump administration considered allowing states to use National Guard troops in an effort to enforce immigration law.
As soon as the news hit Twitter, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer shot down the report as “100 percent false.” Speaking with an AP reporter at the White House when the news broke, Spicer reportedly said, “There is no effort at all to round up—to use the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants. …I wish you guys had asked before you tweeted.”
The AP had reached out multiple times prior to publication. The White House only refuted the report after it was out.
This is not true. DHS also confirms it is 100% false https://t.co/MFIJci7XaU— Stephanie Grisham (@PressSec) February 17, 2017
Turns out, the draft memo the AP revealed was, in fact, real. And the Department of Homeland Security later confirmed the authenticity of the memo. Spicer’s assertion that there was “no effort at all… to use the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants” was also apparently true: The memo did exist, but the White House did not act on the proposal.
In this example, we know the report is true because we can all read the memo, which DHS confirmed was real. Stories that rely on anonymous sources often lack the benefit of hard proof, making a careful reading of a response to anonymous claims even more important.
4) How are the anonymous claims supported?
“Supporting documentation” like the memo provided by the AP report above helps bolster the claims of unnamed sources, says Miller. But many stories lack such documentation. In these cases, look to see what the people who agree to go on the record—to have their names printed—add to the story.
“Take a bit more seriously a story where the overall conclusion depends on anonymous sources, but the reporter has managed to get different a named source to confirm one specific piece of information and another named source to confirm another specific in the story,” says Calame. “The named sources may not support the key conclusion that the mayor took the bribe, but they can give me some added confidence as a reader.”
Stories that are entirely based on anonymous sources with no one on the record “I tend to start questioning more,” Calame adds. “Good stories from anonymous sources often deserve to be presented in a reserved, cautious fashion.”
5) Who wrote it?
This one isn’t foolproof—even great journalists can make mistakes—but knowing that a reporter has a history of accurately reporting big stories that warrant the use of anonymous sources should boost your confidence as a reader.
“If you read stories by the same journalist over time and decide that subsequent events show they were correct,” says Calame, “the byline can become a valuable indication of confidence even with anonymous sources.”
And if a story doesn’t have a byline at all? Put it in the fake news bin and move on.
6) Does the story hold up as a whole?
This one should be obvious, but we have all read a headline and jumped to conclusions or shared the report without diving into the details. This is a dangerous move.
Even the best headlines only tell part of the story, particularly on major stories that involve anonymous sources and complicated topics like national security and law. The headline will also represent what the editors of the report believe to be the most important part, but there will inevitably be key details that get left out.
Sometimes that’s evidence of bias, sometimes it’s just a bad headline—but most often it’s just the fact that editors can’t pack everything into a headline, so you need to read deeper into the article.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to trust a story based on unnamed sources comes down to you, the reader. As a rule of thumb, says Miller, once you’ve read the full story, ask yourself, “Does the entirety of the report instill confidence that it should be trusted?”
If the answer is yes, share away.