On the Record About Going Off the Record

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

This week’s edition of Ethics Newsline contains a reference to a Washington Post story quoting anonymous sources who say that Paula Broadwell, whose affair with former CIA chief David Petraeus led to the legendary general’s downfall and had accessed classified documents with Petraeus’s permission — if true, a sharp reversal of what both parties have been maintaining publicly.

Last week’s edition of Newsline contained another story concerning the Petraeus scandal: a denunciation by an Emerson College journalism professor of the Boston Globe‘s use of anonymous quotes by sources identified as Harvard professors. The professors characterized Broadwell as a shallow and self-aggrandizing student during her studies there.

Jerry Lanson, a former newspaper editor, characterized the Globe‘s anonymous use of the quotes as “the ugly practice of protecting anonymous cheap shots.” Lanson also questioned one of the source’s intent: “And just what was the professor’s motive? In trying to discredit Broadwell as a student, was he (or she) also attempting to distance the hallowed halls of Harvard’s Kennedy School from a fallen alum…. None of these questions would be relevant had the Globe rejected such a flimsy pretext for anonymity.”

What accounts for this publication’s seemingly schizophrenic ethical view of anonymous sources — carrying a piece decrying them one week and a story employing them the next?

Good question — and a tough and durable one. Probably no ethical issue has been more prominent in the history and practice of journalism, and it’s an eloquent example of not only why ethics are important, but why it’s important to talk about them in public.

First, my obligatory lecture: Use of anonymous sources is a clear example of the classic ethical balance between consequentialism (i.e., the ends justify the means) and non-consequentialism (i.e., motives, not results, are the important motivating factors in ethical decisions because you can’t predict consequences and pretending that you can gives you license to be dishonest).

The consequentialist argument about anonymous sources is a powerful one, and usually begins and ends with Watergate, a story heavily reported through anonymous sources because those speaking feared for their careers and possibly their freedom and — if you believe a detail reported by Woodward and Bernstein, who said a Nixon operative had threatened to assassinate a reporter — their lives.

Defenders of anonymous sources note, with reasonable certainty, that the story of the criminal conspiracy emanating from the White House could not have been gathered had sources not been kept off the record.

(Note, by the way, that major corporations and the government allow and sometimes reward anonymity by offering anonymous tip lines for those who fear retaliation — another story covered from time to time in this publication.)

But non-consequentialists volley back with some persuasive points. Former USA Today publisher Allen Neuharth at one time essentially prohibited the use of almost all anonymous sources, but admits that the paper relented in the face of competitive pressures — and as a result became embroiled in a mortifying scandal when it was discovered that one of its star reporters used the cloak of anonymity to print colorful, evocative, and totally fabricated quotes.

Some non-consequentialists argue that you can get virtually anything on the record if you try hard enough. One of the most famous examples was a story published by the Pittsburgh Press in the 1980s that dealt with the buying and selling of human kidneys. Co-author Andrew Schneider told a journalism review that he chose that route because he wanted a bulletproof piece: “It’s really hard to talk about fictionalizing something or taking it out of context when you’ve got a couple of hundred doctors, nurses, procurement people, and donor families all talking [on the record] about the issues at hand.”

Those who oppose the use of anonymous quotes also point out that cloaking a source greases a brisk commerce in falsehood. For one thing, a source who is not accountable has little investment in telling the truth (or at least the whole truth). Second, the source may be floating misleading information just to test public reaction and subsequently disavow the story if the information is negative — the so-called trial-balloon strategy.

So it becomes apparent that whether to use anonymous sources can be, like most other ethical issues, a “right versus right” decision since both sides can present a clearly credible case. The balancing point is determined by weighing the ethical ramifications on both sides of the scale. Generally, most news organizations that have thought through the issue have policies that deal with the process in some detail.

Many codes of ethics require that an editor know the source and the source’s credentials (and motives, insofar as motives can be known) before anonymity is granted. The Washington Post‘s guidelines on anonymous sources, which run over 3,000 words, specify that at least one editor know the source and “jointly assess” the decision to grant anonymity with the reporter and, presumably in some cases, other editors. Other codes proscribe granting anonymity if the information is self-serving, obvious, or — as specifically prohibited in the Los Angeles Times‘s guidelines — an “ad-hominem attack.”

Many codes require that reporters and editors do their best to independently verify information that comes from an off-the-record source, ascertaining not only its veracity but whether it is exaggerated or biased.

Also, it is common for codes to insist not only that the source have a compelling reason to remain unidentified but also that the reason be explained to the reader or viewer. A recent study (in 2008) showed that about a quarter of news stories offer some explanation of why sources were granted anonymity, up from about 10 percent in the 1998.

The Washington Post piece cited in this week’s Petraeus/Broadwell report states that the sources were granted anonymity because “the inquiry is ongoing,” a plausible if not especially thorough explanation. Note, too, that just because codes are in print does not always mean they are adhered to, as Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander uncovered in two columns.

But clearly there’s a trend of transparency — or at least the appearance of transparency — in the granting of anonymity. Are the safeguards described above adequate? What’s your view about anonymous sources? Let us know in the comment box below. (And by the way, note that our policy requires that you provide and display your name.)

©2012 Institute for Global Ethics


Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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