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The fine line for anonymous sourcing between necessity and frivolity by Andrea Perng

Name has been withheld. For the purposes of maintaining this person’s anonymity. To protect their identity. One U.S. official. An anonymous student. Voice filters and shadowed faces.

Anonymous sources have been widely used in journalism for a long, long time. From government officials like the infamous Deep Throat that expose corruption within the state to women that have been sexually assaulted and fear retribution from their abuser, anonymity has long been a part of journalism.

My school publication’s policy for making someone anonymous are fairly straightforward: if the information they give could jeopardize their way of life, don’t publish their name. If not, leave it in. Even that, however, can have its caveats — it’s this policy that allowed one of my classmates to publish the name and class of someone who had used an old test to get answers before the test itself, despite having requested anonymity. In the same article, anonymity was granted to someone who had done the same thing, to a lesser degree, and was quoted only once. I found out about this through a friend who I’d asked to interview and who had turned me down because he no longer believed he could trust the publication to represent him well.

On the flip side, however, when a group of students came together in a group chat on social media and made a kill list of black students in the school, the publication granted anonymity to two of the people in the chat who did not participate but faced consequences regardless. Even though I disagree with that decision myself, I can understand why they were given the option to leave themselves out of the equation. Not only would they be potentially ostracized in the student body for their inaction, making their names public would almost certainly hinder their chances of going to college or finding a job.

It’s hard to stay consistent when dealing with anonymity because there are so many reasons for why it should be granted, and just as many reasons why it shouldn’t. Should one give the same protections to someone who’s cheated on a test once in high school and to someone who sells Adderall to their classmates? At one point does giving someone anonymity cross the line between necessary and overly gracious? Does using anonymous sources make a journalist organization less trustworthy?

I’ve found that the answer varies wildly depending on who you talk to. On a brief analysis of Tweets containing both the words “anonymous” and “journalism,” I found that many Trump supporters (and conservatives in general, for that matter) thought poorly of news organizations that used anonymous sources in articles about his administration. They often accused such organizations of concocting false information from nonexistent sources or sensationalizing a certain topic, referring to the use of anonymity as a product of liberal bias. On the other hand, liberals tend to support the usage of anonymous sources, citing them as a cornerstone of journalism and necessary for its survival.

My take on the matter is that the decision to grant or not to grant anonymity should take into account a number of different factors.

Age should certainly be one of them; there’s a vast difference between a 15-year-old student, having never even met a reporter before, and an adult telling a story about how they do drugs. Another factor should be the content of the interview itself. Is the person in question requesting anonymity only so they can freely attack something or someone, or to dodge responsibility as a public figure? Or would they legitimately be endangered if their name was publicly attached to a statement they made? Additionally, it’s the responsibility of the reporter to be upfront with their intentions. In my opinion, it’s tremendously unethical to promise someone anonymity only to publish their name regardless — not only does it erode trust in your capabilities as a reporter, it reflects on the publication’s policies themselves.

And if a publication is using anonymous sources too frequently, what does that say about them? At least in my opinion, it means that they fear retribution more than they dedicate themselves to truth-telling. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if little to no anonymous sources can be found within any publication’s works, they may not be digging deep enough to find what’s behind outward appearances.

Ultimately, whether or not the use of anonymous sources is deemed necessary depends on how the reporter carries out their duties. It should be done with the full knowledge of what anonymity entails, and thus used sparingly. Even then, as much background as possible should be given to the person in question so that the full story is told, even if the story lacks a name or two, because that’s exactly the job of a journalist.

Anything less would be a disservice.

Created By
Andrea Perng
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GRAPHIC CREDIT | ANDREA PERNG

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