Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Anonymous or Unidentified Sources

In his January 5, 2005, article headlined "Cuffed man shot officer," Idaho Spokesman Review staff writer Thomas Clouse used "an anonymous law enforcement source" for some of the information in his story. Predictably, letters to the editors of both the Idaho Spokesman Review and its local competitor, The Coeur d'Alene Press, have expressed a range of emotions about the writer's use of an anonymous source. Few have supported using an anonymous source.

Having spoken with several broadcast and print journalists over the years, I've found none that wanted or encouraged anonymous or unnamed sources. It was interesting for me (in law enforcement at the time) to note the similarities between how journalists and law enforcement agents assess information sources.

Fundamentally, both journalists and investigators seek accurate information. Inaccurate information is worthless. Sometimes it was very challenging to differentiate between fact and the source's judgment or interpretation.

Both journalists and investigators evaluate the motives of the source for even being willing to speak. One must ask, "Why is this person willing to talk with me?" Journalists and investigators are equally concerned about being intentionally misled by sources with axes and grinding wheels behind door number one.

Journalists quite rightly want to know why a source insists on anonymity. Is there some way the journalist can explain why the unnamed or anonymous source can be believed without identifying the source? There can be retaliation against a journalist's source just as readily as against a law enforcement officer's source.

Journalists and investigators will often try to determine from a source if there are other sources who can corroborate the information the anonymous source is willing to supply. If there are corroborating sources who are willing to go on the record, then there is no need to even mention the anonymous source except to supervisors or editors who may want to know how the reporter or investigator got to the spinoff sources.

We all want to know if our source was really in a position to observe, recall, and recount the information based on first-hand observation. Assuring anonymity to a source reporting hearsay and rumor is foolish since the journalist or investigator is in no position to assess the credibility of the real originator.

I also learned from contacts with journalists that editors essentially need to be convinced that there is absolutely, positively no other source; that the story itself is sufficiently important to warrant the use of an unnamed source; that the source's information is essential to the story; that the source is not trying to manipulate the news medium; and that every effort has been made to get the source on the record. In other words, reliance on an anonymous source even one with verifiably accurate information, is a last rather than first choice.

But there are times when news source anonymity is warranted. Without "Deep Throat" it is very possible that the Watergate break-in would have been remembered as the third-rate burglary Richard Nixon represented it to be.

Journalists, like criminal investigators, cannot foresee the future. Neither knows with certainty how the story will end, so both must proceed and try to gather as much accurate and complete information as quickly as possible using their best professional judgment and skills.

Both journalists and criminal investigators operate under time constraints. News that is not timely is no longer news; it is history. Crime scenes must eventually be released and investigators move on to the next step of the investigation. In most instances, neither journalists nor investigators are happy with the pressures imposed by deadlines. But deadlines are a fact of life for both.

Journalists, no less than criminal investigators, must sometimes consider using anonymous or unnamed sources. We, the People, must remember that in most cases, both journalists and investigators have a similar motive in deciding to use an anonymous or unnamed source. Their motive is to report factually and completely to their respective audiences.


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