Best Practices: Anonymous Sources

The Best Practice column is an occasional look at foundational best practices in journalism ethics. In this post, we’re exploring the best practices and ethical considerations when using anonymous sources.

Sources are integral to a journalist’s work. They can provide essential information, context, credibility, and often, a human element to one’s story. Agreeing to withhold the identity of a source from readers, viewers or listeners is a tool that reporters sometimes must deploy if it’s the only way to get important information in their news gathering. But it’s a tool that should be used sparingly and only with the clear understanding of the agreement’s terms by the source and the journalist.

Under New York Times guidelines, anonymous sources, which the Times defines as human sources who aren’t disclosed to readers, “should be used only for information that we believe is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way.”

The use of anonymous sources can affect your audience’s trust in your journalism. “While most Americans express some support for the use of anonymous sources, a sizable portion of the public also says that journalists’ use of anonymous sources influences whether they trust a news story,” according to a Pew Research Center summary of a 2020 survey it conducted on the topic. “Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (68%) say that an anonymous source in a story has at least some influence on whether they find that story credible (21% say a great deal of influence and 47% say some influence).”

Knowing that, journalists should use anonymous sources only when essential and to give readers as much information as possible about the anonymous source’s credentials – how do they know what they know. For instance, rather than writing: “According to an anonymous source, the company will file for bankruptcy protection tomorrow,” strive to reach an agreement with the source to allow for more description. Something like: “According to a person who read the board meeting minutes and saw the filing, the company will file for bankruptcy protection tomorrow.”

Best practices:

  1. After you’ve identified yourself as a reporter, it’s a given that the conversation that follows is on the record and you don’t need to define any terms. However, when seeking to interview people who may not be experienced in dealing with the media, it may be appropriate for you to explicitly explain to them that what they say to you may be published.
  2. Always try to keep sources on-the-record, which will allow you to attribute by name the information you’ve received from that person. An offer of anonymity should never be your starting point. And don’t give in to anonymity too easily. Keep trying to stay on the record or seek the information from another source.
  3. If you need to negotiate an agreement with a source that does not want to be named in your story, use plain language to establish the terms of your deal, rather than phrases like “off the record” or “on deep background.” Even among seasoned journalists, there is disagreement about the meanings of those phrases. Instead, describe the possible deal with your source using words that everyone can understand. An example: “I agree that I will not publish your name as the source of the information that you will give me, but instead may attribute it to ‘a person who worked in the Clinton White House’.” It’s important to be as clear as possible so both the journalist and the source understand what may be published. The more that you can describe to your audience your source’s attributes and how they know what they know, the more trustworthy your reporting will be to that audience.
  4. Define any deals narrowly. As in the example above, while you won’t attribute the information to them by name, you want to reserve the right to use their name elsewhere in your story if their involvement is newsworthy. Continuing the example above: Perhaps in your story you’re listing the names of people who went on a trip with the president and your source was on the trip. To exclude the source’s name wouldn’t make sense and could call her out for attention, even if you’ve agreed not to attribute information to her by name.
  5. An agreement with a source can be a legally binding contract. Take care to keep up your end of the deal. In most newsrooms, the identity of the anonymous source must be shared with an editor, so don’t agree never to share the source’s name. In addition, a deal like that can cause you and your newsroom much trouble should a court order you to divulge the source’s identity. The bottom line: A deal in which you agree never to name a source shouldn’t be made without the clearance of your most senior editor.
  6. Avoid creating composite characters from multiple anonymous sources. For example, if a reporter speaks with two sources who work at the Pentagon and both ask that their names not be included in the final reporting, journalists should ensure that the sources’ quotes are clearly differentiated from each other. Compiling both sources into one source is dishonest reporting, as it gives the reader the idea that just one anonymous source said what two anonymous sources actually did. 
  7. In general, journalists should avoid using anonymous sources to make accusations or derogatory comments, a practice sometimes called “an unattributed negative.” Why? Simply because it can look dubious and has a hint of unfairness. Negative comments from an anonymous source might lead readers to believe that someone with ill-will is hiding behind their anonymity to evade the consequences of their statements. And, the target of the negative statement has no idea who is making the comment and why. There can be an exception for sources who claim to be victims of sexual assault, rape, or harassment. These types of sources may only feel safe accusing someone under the protection of anonymity, and reporting those accusations requires careful work to seek to corroborate the source’s claims before publication.
  8. Be very wary of agreeing to go “off the record,” which most journalists agree means that the information cannot be used and is not the same as information from an anonymous source, which can be used. “Being told something that’s off-the-record puts us in a terrible bind,” writes Indira A.R. Lakshmanan for Poynter. “We can’t un-know something. What if we are told something that could be as big as Watergate? If we sit on such information, we’re derelict in our duty to inform. Yet if we made a commitment to stay silent, we’re bound by it, except in the most extreme circumstances.”