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A Look at Journalists' Use of Anonymous Sources

FILE- Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of The Washington Post in Washington, May 7, 1973.
FILE- Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of The Washington Post in Washington, May 7, 1973.

Here's a guide to how and why American news reporters use "sources" to add information and details to their stories, in question-and-answer format:

Why do journalists use anonymous sources?

Reporters use anonymous sources because those sources sometimes will reveal important information only if they are able to remain unidentified.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) says: "Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp."

What are the motives of anonymous sources?

Sources can have a wide variety of motivations — wanting to expose activities they believe are illegal or immoral, being concerned about the public's right to know, and less high-minded reasons such as seeking to embarrass some person or group or advancing their personal agendas.

What guidance is available for using anonymous sources?

The SPJ code of ethics makes two main points on anonymity:

— Identify sources whenever possible. The public is entitled to as much information as can be provided about sources' reliability.

— Always question sources' motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

How often do reporters use anonymous sources?

Most media outlets use anonymous sources to some extent. Many news reporters say the use of anonymous sources is much more prevalent now than it was 50 years ago.

Last year, The New York Times tightened its rules for using anonymous sources, saying the practice "puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers." The Times said last March that direct quotes from anonymous sources would be used only on rare occasions, and that at least one editor must know the identity of any anonymous source.

By July, the Times' associate managing editor for standards, Phil Corbett, said there had been a "measurable drop," around 30 percent, in anonymous sourcing since the new guidelines had been put into place.

Does the use of anonymous sources work?

It depends on the journalists. The most famous example of successfully using anonymous sources was during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, when The Washington Post used the anonymous source known as "Deep Throat" to unravel the White House cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Years later, "Deep Throat" was revealed to be a senior executive at the FBI.

There are infamous examples, too, such as Janet Cooke, a Post reporter who invented a Pulitzer Prize-winning story in 1981 about a child heroin addict, and Jason Blair, a Times reporter who fabricated a confidential law enforcement source in the Washington sniper case in 2002. Both were dismissed by their employers after the truth came out.

What does the law say about using anonymous sources?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees American citizens freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, that does not mean that the law will always protect a journalist's promise to keep his or her sources confidential. U.S. courts have jailed journalists for not revealing their sources in certain criminal cases. Conversely, the U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that a source whose identity was revealed despite a promise of confidentiality may sue for damages.

"Few ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources," the Society of Professional Journalists says. "Keep your promise not to identify a source of information, and it's possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge and a jail cell. On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source and it's just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit."

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