I've never cared much for anonymous, confidential or unnamed sources in the news.
I write this in the wake of a news week that included a furor over an anonymous opinion-editorial piece in the New York Times, purportedly written by an insider in the Trump administration. After reading that piece, I still don't much care for unnamed sources.
Admittedly, it was an opinion piece, not a straight news story, but it was anonymous. Allowing people to put their thoughts in the newspaper without being publicly identified gives them the opportunity to say mean things about someone or something without taking responsibility for saying those things. It's rather like saying, "Here, take a free shot at my chin.'' It also makes it difficult for the reader to judge the credibility of the information.
The anonymous Times' op-ed piece included quite a few negative points about the sitting president. I don't mind him taking some shots. He ran for the job. I just don't like it happening anonymously in a newspaper or on a news broadcast. The bosses at the Times apparently know the source and judge her or him to be credible. I like to make my own judgments about the credibility of the information I read or hear.
I shied away from anonymous sources in my writings over the decades. I did try to cultivate sources, collect tips, verify those tips and protect those sources. But having sources isn't the same as quoting them anonymously in a story. I'm pretty sure people could go through my collection of stories over the years and find times when I did use an unnamed source. They wouldn't find many, though. And I recognize that any time I did use an unnamed source, even someone I deemed credible, I denied the readers the opportunity to judge the source and the information themselves.
I remember a time when every letter to the editor had to be signed. Sometimes I was assigned to call a letter writer to verify that an actual person wrote the letter. The internet came along with its anonymous comment sections, and that quaint practice went out the window in many outlets.
I didn't think the information presented in the recent piece in the Times was so essential to the public discussion that it required a guarantee of anonymity. I'd have found the material more credible if I'd known the identity and position of the person presenting it. Others may disagree, and that's fine. We can still do that in this country.
I write this on Friday. As intense as has been the discussion over the Times' op-ed piece, perhaps the anonymous writer will have been publicly identified by the time you read this. Perhaps not. The search among Trump staffers for the writer seems fierce. The president wants to know who did it, and he isn't someone who backs away from a search such as this. Presumably the Times and the unnamed op-ed writer were aware of and prepared for an all-out search. That's one of the consequences of the decision to publish this way.
Another beauty about this country is that newspapers can make that decision and publish information. There may be consequences, but almost without exception, prior restraint may not be placed on publication.
My concern about the anonymity is this: The news columns of this nation's newspapers remain the most credible sources of even-handed information. That's critical in a democracy. It's essential. With all the attacks on the free press from those with vested interests in undermining the credibility of reporters and editors, we need to be more vigilant than ever about our standards. I worry about anything that has the potential to hurt the credibility of the newspaper world. I can't say today if the anonymous Times piece hurts that credibility, but I worry.
A Poynter Institute survey showed that about three-fourths of Americans of all political leaning trust local newspapers and local TV news "a great deal'' or "a fair amount.'' Trust in national outlets is lower but still fairly strong. Those are encouraging numbers — in spite of the relentless attacks on press credibility, those are encouraging numbers. News people need to respect and protect that trust.