Going Incognito

I’ve been thinking a little bit about anonymous sources in news stories, mostly spurred by some of Trump’s more recent tweets. Specifically, Trump’s actions practically beg the analysis of whether anonymous sources are, by and large, beneficial or detrimental for the news media, and democracy at large.

On the one hand, it’s clear that unnamed sources routinely do the public a valuable service. (Their vitalness to the exposure of Watergate comes to mind.) The simple truth is that our government reflexively tends towards secrecy instead of openness. Based on past experience, it seems reasonable to assume that, at any given time, there is a reasonable quantity of information floating around Washington that would be both in the public interest, and not overly detrimental should it be released. Particularly in this day and age, when the FOIA is essentially toothless, and the Trump administration has publicly threatened to prosecute leakers, we’ve created both an impetus for sources to go anonymous, and a reason for journalists to listen to them. Clearly, then, as the old cliche goes, Democracy dies in the dark, and unnamed sources have become a powerful source of illumination.

The downsides of not naming your sources, however, are obvious and numerous. First of all, if you can’t tell us where your information came from, you give us a good reason to doubt what you’re saying. When journalism is practiced carefully, named sources give the public a powerful tool for holding the news media accountable and keeping them faithful to their ideals of truth and objectivity. Conversely, then, the extensive use of anonymous sources causes us to lose that measure of control. The even larger problem, however, is not untrustworthiness in the news media, (They’re generally pretty good about not blatantly making things up) but the fact that it allows other actors to stir up doubt and controversy about facts that would otherwise be accepted rapidly.

A good case study of this is the Times coverage of the ongoing Trump-Russia saga. Looking through any of the relevant stories, (and there have been a lot of them) it becomes quickly apparent that a sizeable fraction of them rely either exclusively or at least mostly on unnamed sources. Looking at this, I can’t help but worry that this fact begins to seriously erode the credibility of the information, especially under the caustic influence of the Trump administration, which has been actively trying to suppress it. Of course, they’ve got the media in a bit of a lose-lose situation: The tough talk on leaks makes leakers more likely to go anonymous, and when they do, the administration can turn around and accuse the media of lying.

Even so, it seems clear that the media has the responsibility to work as hard as they can to get people to go on-the-record. In the specific case of the Russia fracas, that might mean sacrificing some coverage, but, to be honest, if Trump did something wrong, it’s almost certainly too late for him to stop it from blowing up in his face. In that light, I think that the Times can stand to be a little bit cautious.

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