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Anonymous sources are the height of journalistic irresponsibility

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A couple of weeks ago in this column I complained about anonymous Internet posters. There few things that annoy me more than people who post anonymously online, but this is one of them: news outlets who routinely attribute information to anonymous sources.

There is one local news outlet who we see routinely attributing information to anonymous sources. Sometimes the information they provide without attaching anyone’s name to it is correct. Sometimes it’s not.

Sure, there is a time and a place for anonymous sources. We occasionally have a need to protect a whistle blower who provides sensitive information that could result in dire consequences for them if their name was attached to it. And by occasionally, I mean almost never. I can’t remember the last time it happened. Even in those instances, we only go with that information if we can independently verify it.

Fairly often we get calls from people who tell us things but don’t want their names reported. We look into every tip we get, and do not report anything until we have thoroughly investigated and can verify what we were told. People have a hard time understanding sometimes why we can’t just immediately post what they tell us online, but our job is not to feed the rumor mill; it’s to report facts.

There’s a really good reason why anonymous sourcing happens so rarely in our pages. It’s not exactly ethical.

Without attributing information to a specific person, we can offer no guarantee to our readers that we didn’t just make up what we’re reporting.

News sources who not only run with anonymous sources but immediately report a tip without thoroughly investigating it aren’t news sources. They are gossips. The practice is about as far from real journalism as you can get.

You might remember a New York Times reporter named Jayson Blair who suddenly resigned in 2003 after senior editors found many instances where he either plagiarized or outright fabricated material.

He made up quotes he attributed to people he never interviewed. He stole information from other news outlets and passed it off as his own reporting. Worst of all, he attributed information to anonymous sources that he had fabricated. He was able to get away with his shenanigans for about six months before the truth about what he was doing came to light.

When he left the Times, the newspaper published an extensive front-page story reporting all of his misdeeds. Blair’s lack of ethics will remain an indelible stain on the reputation of a newspaper many consider among the most respected and trusted in the country.

News outlets need to maintain a level of trust with their readers. Every mistake we make affects our credibility, so we need to make sure we check our facts carefully. When we report those facts, we need to demonstrate very clearly where we got them so there is no question about the integrity of the source. When we make a mistake — because we are human and it happens — we correct it and in doing so state whether we made an error or a source gave us wrong information.

Every time I see information attributed to anonymous sources, I think of Jayson Blair and wonder where that information really came from.

The next time you see a report that cites anonymous or unnamed sources, ask yourself where that information originated. Did it come from a real person or the imagination of a reporter trying to get ahead? In the absence of a name, those two possibilities are equally valid.

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