We’re in a world where news and opinion and fact and conjecture and rumors and hyperbole all seem to have lost their boundaries and are mashed together. That makes the search for credibility more challenging today than ever.
The last 35 years or so, certainly since the so-called “deep throat” days of the Watergate era, has seen the gradual acceptance of the use of anonymous sources. But unlike the Watergate days, when the anonymous source was used largely to guide a more informed line of questioning, news organizations are quoting anonymous sources directly, often promising anonymity in exchange for information that journalists deem central to their story.
But there’s a big problem with this twist in the age-old art of sourcing: by not identifying a source that is quoted directly, the journalist has taken a critical tool away from the reader or viewer, and that is the audience’s ability to judge the credibility of the source.
Journalists increasingly are taking it upon themselves to decide that a source has no other agenda than truth-telling. Even the most rigorous private vetting of a source will not fully reveal what a larger audience might know. A great example happened recently when a client of ours was skewered by two anonymous sources at a partner company. These damning quotes were laced into an otherwise transparent story where we, the audience, could determine all the players and make our decisions about their motives.
In this case, did the anonymous sources have some stake in barbequing our client? Did the sources have a need to cover their own backsides by redirecting blame for some mishap? Or were they paragons of virtue trying to right a wrong?
Well, we’ll never know, and that is the point.
In matters of reputation, which is to say in almost all matters, the vaunted “public right to know” should include the right to weigh the credibility of a source. And if those sources don’t want to be quoted, that alone should provide a journalist pause. Even in a court of law, one is given the opportunity to face one’s accuser. Journalists should not foreclose on that possibility by using a source who, under the cloak of darkness, is accountable to no one.
It’s time to return to a practice where anonymous sources are used to inform a line of questioning, not to deliver “facts” that go on the record without the test of an informed public.
An organization has an obligation to be honest and transparent with stakeholders about its actions a…
Early in August, two friends of Page Society, Frank Ovaitt, the president and CEO of the Institute f…
In any crisis, information can be difficult to validate at the pace it spreads. It can be used to em…