Anonymous Sources: A Necessary Evil

Image via Flickr Creative Commons/Germaine

President Donald Trump on Friday latched on to one of journalism’s greatest vulnerabilities by attacking the use of anonymous sources in stories about his administration.


Anonymous sources are a necessary evil in journalism.

Many of the most important stories in United States history relied on information provided by people who needed their identities shielded from the public. At the same time, anonymity provides the subjects of those same stories a powerful tool to discredit the information.

“I called the fake news the enemy of the people,” said President Donald Trump on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. “And they are. They are the enemy of the people, because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.”

Trump’s comments come on the heels of a number of stories that included anonymous sources and painted his administration in unflattering light. For example, CNN used unnamed sources in a Thursday report that claimed the Federal Bureau of Investigation refused to publicly dispute allegations that Trump aides communicated with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I saw one story recently where they said, ‘Nine people have confirmed,’” said Trump during his speech on Friday. “There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people.”

While Trump is wrong that reputable news organizations invent sources, those same organizations and their journalists should take note of his criticism that is likely shared by his supporters. Journalists need to work more diligently than ever before to find sources who will go on the record or provide documents to support their claims.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics stresses the importance of journalists identifying their sources. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources,” according to the document.

Cases do exist when the importance of the information outweighs the need for journalists to identify their sources, however. Those include cases when the source “may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”

In those cases, journalists and news organizations must thoroughly explain why sources were granted anonymity. The public often misunderstands the premise of anonymous sources. Journalists should be clear that they know the identity of their source and trust their information, but the public can’t know their identity due to a certain circumstance.

The Trump administration clearly plans to identify, attack and amplify any weaknesses and vulnerabilities in news stories and coverage. While mistakes will be made from time to time, it’s important that journalists and news organizations focus on minimizing those opportunities for the White House.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists


This post was updated at 1:42 on Friday, February 24, 2017 to add additional information to the penultimate paragraph about anonymous sources.

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