The Trouble(s) with Anonymous Sources

Dan Wardby Dan Ward

It seems like almost every news report you watch, hear or read nowadays includes the line “according to sources.”

In the rush to publish a new angle to a story, media turn to anonymous sources, “insiders” who share new details with the promise that their identities will not be shared.  Anonymity was once provided to shield sources from dangerous repercussions (including prosecution), but now it seems anonymity is granted as a matter of course.

But when you don’t know who the sources are, how do you know whether they’re reliable?

Take the latest egg-on-face moment for ABC News, which is still recovering from the Brian Ross fiasco on the coverage of the horrific shootings in Aurora.

The network reported Tuesday that the gunman “is spitting at jail officers so frequently that at one point he was made to wear a face guard, sources told ABC News.”

But then the Denver ABC affiliate, KMGH, contradicted the story, saying that those reports were “simply false.”  Where did KMGH get this information?  You guessed it.  The news was “according to knowledgeable sources.”  (At least their unnamed sources were knowledgeable.)

How about asking one of these knowledgeable sources to go on the record?  If a source isn’t accountable for his or her statement, how are we to know what to believe?

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