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Public Editor: Keeping sources’ anonymity is a matter of trust

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

The Globe and Mail

In the midst of charges of made-up news, mostly south of the border, a reader wanted to know more about the mysterious practices around anonymous sources.

"I realize there are times when a source does not want to go on the record out of concern for their position, reputation and livelihood, but the practice seems to have become an issue," the reader said. "Fake news sites regularly cite 'anonymous sources' as a way to cover the fact that they're just making things up. … The other day, Trump claimed media who quote anonymous sources are making it all up. Some clarification about why anonymous sources are used by the legitimate [media] might be helpful at this point."

Using real names of real officials, is, of course, much more credible. But sometimes, as the reader notes, a whistle-blower wants the public to know the truth without losing their job.

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To me, the practice of keeping people anonymous is a matter of trust. A source won't tell a journalist inside information unless they trust the journalist not to name them. The organization shouldn't put their own credibility on the line unless they trust that the source is in a position to know and they make efforts to verify that it is the truth. And most importantly, the reader has to trust that the information is valid. The bar is very high.

Some of us remember Watergate and the anonymous source who brought down a president by leaking key data to Washington Post reporters about then-president Richard Nixon's role in covering up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The reporters and at least one of their senior editors knew the anonymous whistle-blower (known in the articles as Deep Throat) was Mark Felt, then the associate director of the FBI, but not a whiff of that could be given to the readers. Nonetheless, they had to believe the Washington Post that he could be trusted, that his documents and information were real and he had no political axe to grind.

Likewise, Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc based key reporting into the federal sponsorship scandal on his source "Ma Chouette" (My Dear). While her identity has never been made public, both Mr. Leblanc and a senior editor at The Globe had confidence that she was in a position to know.

But in a situation where we are asking for the readers' trust, more can – and should – be done to enlighten them. I've been monitoring The Globe's use of anonymous sources over the past month and while there is nothing obviously wrong, there are some practices which could be improved.

I found a lack of consistency in describing sources and few explanations for why the source was granted anonymity.

The Globe and Mail's policy states that the justification for no attribution is "to get the fullest story possible, not to let people dodge accountability or take anonymous potshots."

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Anonymous quotes and information should be used only under the following conditions: They convey important information that cannot be obtained for attribution elsewhere; they cannot be used to voice opinions or make ad hominem attacks; the sources are described as fully as possible; and, on request, an editor knows the source's name and full details of their position.

It is true that many important stories and details would not become public if it weren't for the use of anonymous sources. I found no examples of anonymous sources taking potshots at others.

But this next part of the policy needs greater attention and enforcement from the editors: "We must be diligent in describing sources as fully as possible. That includes: how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information and why we agreed to grant them anonymity."

In too many stories, the information is attributed just to "a source" or "sources" with no description of how they might know. By contrast, here is an example of good practices from an Ottawa story on marijuana legislation: "said the federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the tabling of the legislation." That description shows you it is an official and why she or he was unable to be quoted: because the legislation was still confidential.

An example of good practices that could have been better followed the statement that the Trump administration did not appear to know what it wants from trade negotiations. It was attributed to "sources in the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican governments." This was a very full description of who the people were, but could have been improved with a reference to why we granted them anonymity. Even in this case, when it might seem obvious, it is a good practice to use.

Some of the international news-wire services have good standards around this practice. A Reuters news-agency story referred to Boeing layoffs according to "a source and a memo seen by Reuters." In a story about the death of Prince, the Associated Press referred to confidential information from "an official with knowledge of the investigation [who spoke] on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing."

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Personally, I do not like the wording, found in several stories, "The Globe and Mail has learned." That does not tell the reader how The Globe learned it (a document, a source, who knows?), how credible the information is and why anonymity was granted. It also feels both obvious and promotional.

If The Globe is essentially saying "Trust us" when they quote anonymous sources, then readers deserve to know as much as possible without compromising the source.

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