Anonymous sources, gossip, will ruin credibility
In May 2005, Newsweek published an article claiming U.S. troops at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Quran. Outrage was expressed around the world. Violence in several Muslim countries led to the deaths of more than a dozen protesters expressing their anger at what U.S. troops were alleged to have done.
This grave mistake made by Newsweek gave the public one more reason not to believe the news media whose credibility remains pretty much in tatters. Even worse, it caused more than a dozen innocent people to lose their lives. The use of anonymous sources is dangerous business.
The Newsweek fiasco is a classic example of why I, as an editor, prefer not to use anonymous sources and would only use one under extraordinary circumstances and under strict guidelines with built-in accountability. Get burned by anonymous sources and you’ll lose credibility with the public. As a journalist, you are finished and your publication severely damaged.
I praised The Christian Index in February for its reporting of problems at the North American Mission Board, but also expressed my view on the usage of anonymous sources, which The Index used in its reporting of the story. I still believe it would have been better to wait and get the anonymous source to allow identity disclosure, but I also know the editorial staffers involved and they are honorable men who were careful and communicated effectively with their supervisors, so they had accountability. In the end, their source proved reliable and Southern Baptists were well served.
With that qualification, here is why I have never used anonymous sources in my 30-plus years as a journalist and continue to generally oppose their use:
In 2005 the Associated Press Managing Editors surveyed journalists and readers in 42 states, asking them to describe how the use of anonymous sources affected their trust in the news. Nearly 45 percent said anonymity makes them feel less likely to believe what they read. I do not know of a single editor who wants such a large percentage of their readers to feel that way. In addition, the use of anonymous sources can make the news media a dupe for putting out unreliable stories. The stakes are enormous and in too many cases are simply not worth it. It has been said that anonymous sources should be considered the journalistic equivalent of the “nuclear option.” I agree.
For Christian publications, there is another important consideration: Scripture. An anonymous source may be hiding their identity as a means of avoiding having to follow Matthew 18. Christian journalists should never do anything – knowingly or unknowingly – to assist anyone in violating Scripture.
It should be noted that the Newsweek situation took place after the secular news media had for several preceding years gotten too carried away with the use of anonymous sources. (Remember CBS News’ erroneous reporting about President Bush’s service in the National Guard?) Interestingly, it was bloggers who checked out some of these sources and “blew the whistle” when they discovered their information was untrue. Too bad too many bloggers have now evolved into gossip mongers who make the same mistake they once blasted the secular news media for making.
One blogger has made public the preposterous suggestion that I look into the allegations made by an anonymous letter writer whose unsubstantiated charge that Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a temper. I will do no such thing. These frivolous allegations circulating on the Internet are unfair to Mohler because he has not been given the opportunity to respond to the source privately face to face. They also undermine our invaluable trustee system by circumventing it, and because readers have no way of knowing whether the charges are true, they come off as mere gossip or lies. To date, no evidence has been made public, making this sordid ephisode a worthless act of irresponsibility.
The blogger thinks I should look into the matter because I have called for Mohler to prayerfully consider a run for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidency next June. I will not. I’ve got too many other stories to consider, mostly about how Missouri Baptists are leading a lost and dying world to Christ. I must admit I find the timing of this travesty – which comes just a few weeks after I called on Mohler to consider a run for the SBC presidency – a little curious. Could it be that someone does not want Mohler to be SBC president?
Why does the blogger need me? It is bloggers who claim to be the “real news media.” The one question I’ve been burning to ask them is this: How much money do you make doing what you call “news and commentary?” I get a paycheck for being a responsible Christian journalist because of the generosity of Missouri Southern Baptists subscribing to the publication I edit and because they contribute to the Cooperative Program from which my publication benefits monetarily. I also believe a sacred trust exists between The Pathway and its readers. We’ve earned their trust and they know we tell the truth. Linking to stories off a news media’s website and then expressing an opinion about them is lazy journalism if it is journalism at all.
If in the extraordinary event I were to consider working with an anonymous source on any story, I would insist on multiple face-to-face meetings to discuss their allegations. I would be willing to listen – not necessarily publish. Why? Because there would be rules the person would have to follow:
1. The material must be information and not opinion or speculation.
2. The info must be verified independently from other sources. If it cannot, I may throw it back to the anonymous source to get more information, which they usually will do if they are reliable because they want the story out.
3. I would also insist that at least some trustees be brought into the process along with members of the Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Board, to whom I am accountable. With me, there really is no anonymous source in the truest sense because of the accountability to which I must be held. If the source is unwilling to operate under these rules, they can “take a hike.”
If I use anonymous sources, I will point out to readers their use so they can weigh their credibility for themselves and I will always report why the sources requested anonymity (unless such info would lead to their identification). Finally, if any source provides bad info, I burn the source immediately by revealing their identity.
Blogs should follow these same guidelines, but most do not and that is one aspect that largely separates them from news media.
Finally, the question needs to be asked should Baptist state newspapers consider articles involving anonymous sources? I do not believe we should seek them out or make such stories a priority. Seeking wise counsel and bathing the matter in prayer are necessary before a final decision is made.