Student guest post: Going on the record is a risk for sources

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Tara Jeffries is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. Originally from Stokesdale, North Carolina, she is interested in longform reporting, politics, criminal justice reform and international affairs.

There’s a conversation every journalist knows. The one many journalists dread. The one that could sink the whole story. It feels like that final, tentative moment at the end of a first date, or the moment of truth at a job interview. Sometimes, it feels like you’re asking too much.

“Please, let me use your name on the record.”

Even as a student journalist, I’ve had a few of these conversations. Few of them ended in a “yes,” and I know why. When you’re a source — especially for a big story, one that challenges a system or institution — you’ve sometimes got a lot to lose. As journalists, we should respect the personal and professional risks our sources take to tell us their stories.

Still, there are good reasons news outlets are wary of publishing stories including anonymous sources, especially stories driven solely by their unidentified testimony. Occasionally, a source might request anonymity not to protect himself from backlash from the system or punishment from his boss, but because he wants a platform for a personal vendetta.

Journalism also owes the public a high degree of transparency, and relying on anonymous sources can cloud that transparency. But perhaps the most important reason is this: Journalism depends on and celebrates openness, accuracy and accountability, and stories with anonymous sources sometimes leave the facts murkier than they should be.

And in stories controversial enough to elicit requests for anonymity, the facts and the details are more important than ever. Earlier this month, I read an article in The Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, about allegations of sexual assault against former basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon, who was dismissed from the team.

It came as no surprise that most of the sources in the article were anonymous. (Of course, many publications, by default, do not name victims of sexual assault.) The reasons for anonymity were obvious — publicly challenging an established athletic system is an absolute minefield. It’s clear that the reporters at the Chronicle did the best with what they had and were fairly transparent in their reporting process, noting the steps they took to contact athletics officials. But the proliferation of anonymous sources still made me a bit uneasy.

Most publications have policies in place for dealing with anonymous sources. In my experience as an editor and reporter at The Daily Tar Heel, the use of anonymous sources was discouraged but occasionally allowed, particularly for stories on issues of unfair work environments, stories about sensitive issues like sexual assault or stories that challenged or criticized some aspect of the university. I’ve asked editors to grant my sources anonymity not because I fancied myself Woodward or Bernstein, but because I knew their stories wouldn’t be told otherwise. I should note, too, that my sources and the stories they told were always thoroughly vetted.

I didn’t like having to omit the names of the people I interviewed. I wished they were comfortable being fully on the record. But the anonymity of sources in stories like the one I wrote on graduate students who use food stamps is a part of the narrative. It shows the public how much fear of backlash some people felt when discussing their employment, their low pay, their lack of negotiating power. It shows the public how intense the stigma is against government assistance. And it shows how much risk these people took to tell their story — a sure sign that that story is one worth reading.

Anonymity requires the reporter to put a great deal of trust in a source, but it involves perhaps a greater degree of trust between a reporter and editor. Publishing a successful, accurate story that includes anonymous sources often depends entirely on the integrity of the reporter.

Take, for instance, the infamous “Jimmy’s World” story, written by Janet Cooke of The Washington Post in 1980. The story, which chronicled the heroin addiction of a young boy and won a Pulitzer, turned out to be fabricated. Its main sources were anonymous, their stories (and existence!) not vetted by Cooke’s editors.

More recently, Rolling Stone published a retraction of a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that reported horrific incidents of rape at University of Virginia fraternity houses. The story, driven largely by anonymous sources, turned out to be full of holes, factual errors and unreliable reporting. These two examples are enough to scare any editor.

But the story that included the most famous anonymous source — Deep Throat, of Woodward and Bernstein fame — unraveled a political plot whose name is still, some 40-plus years later, shorthand for scandal and corruption. It shone a light on illegal government activity and revealed a president to be a crook. That’s kind of what journalism is all about: speaking truth to power; keeping an eye on the people we elect.

Talking to reporters poses a huge risk for some sources. Editors should appreciate both that risk and the risk they take in their own newsrooms when using anonymous sources. But some stories — especially those that hold powerful people and institutions accountable — deserve to be told.