It’s bad enough when the public gets it wrong, worse when journalists get it wrong, and very, very bad when journalists get it wrong and cause the public to get it wrong.
I’m talking about the recent famous “anonymous” Op Ed piece in the New York times where a “senior member” of the Trump administration confessed they were deliberately opposing some acts the President wanted to take “for the good of the country”
This Op Ed was NOT “anonymous," as many news stories reported.
There are at least 2 types of so-called “anonymous” stories—and I have dealt with both in my career.
1—is the truly and totally anonymous story that comes into the newsroom from out of nowhere. It claims certain newsworthy things have or will happen and asks us to cover them. It cites no or little evidence for the claim and gives no indication who has sent in this news tip. That is a truly anonymous story, and gives reporters a hard time. If the claim is about something significant should we use it; but how do we go about verifying that it is, that the claim is accurate and the “source” is creditable? In most cases these tips/claims can be tossed out on their face. Once in a while they are worth investigating to see if there is anything truthfully there.
2---the other type of so called “anonymous” story, and this was true in the Times cases, is where the source IS KNOWN to the reporter, but insists on remaining anonymous, which in a country with a First Amendment is their right. What to do, if you are an ethical journalist, especially if the claim is about an important public issue? You can try to talk them out of their insistence, which is what finally happened in the recent story in the Washington Post about the woman now claiming Judge Kavanaugh sexually abused her. Or you can keep investigating the source’s claim, and if you can’t convince them to “go public” wrestle mightily with whether the claim is so newsworthy and the source so creditable that you go ahead and print it, keeping the source’s name out of it, as ethics require.
It’s not an easy decision to make and we reporters have had many an argument over what is the “right” course here. Some decide one way; the Times decided another.
Which also means, since the newsroom and the editorial board room at the Times are two very separate entities, that the newsroom now has the ethical responsibility to try to uncover who the Op Ed writer is..and if they succeed, will that story be pushed?? (That one will go all the way up to the publisher for a decision, and one that will be further complicated by rumors the Wall Street Journal or CBS has unearthed the writer and is about to report same.) Who said Journalism was easy?
We---the collective we of the US 4th Estate—has done a bad job explaining what I see as 2 very different definitions of “anonymous” here.
May I suggest, in the future, these be differentiated as “anonymous” in case 1, and “from a source known to us but who insists on not being named” in case 2. That will help the public decide what faith, if any, to put on the story.
I'm just sayin'...