Posted in Behind the News

When is it OK to use anonymous sources?

, by John Daniszewski

To strengthen the trust of our audiences around the world and to meet our own values, we long ago set tough rules on attribution and on the use of anonymous sources.

No one wants news that’s built on unnamed, unaccountable sources and facts seemingly pulled from the air. Politicians and members of the public sometimes have cited such journalism as a reason for the fall in trust in the media. A poll in May by the AP-supported Media Insight Project was bleak: only 17 percent of Americans now judge the “news media” as very accurate.

Reporting with loose attribution or anonymous sourcing can be dismissed as fake by the skeptical reader or politician. On the other hand, a report filled with verifiable facts attributed to named and authoritative sources of information is impossible to dispute.

On Attribution

Our standard is that AP news reports must attribute any disputable facts that were not witnessed, gathered or confirmed on our own. In other words, if the information is secondhand -- somebody told us something -- the information should be attributed to named sources in our stories. Being transparent about precisely where the facts or views contained in our report come from is one of the strongest ways to build and maintain trust in AP’s journalism.

Attribution should come just before or just after the first reference to the information that is used -- in the same sentence.

If in subsequent paragraphs we provide more details from the same source, we should restate the attribution unless it is perfectly clear from the context that we are referring to the previously cited source for the information.

On Anonymous Sources

In a perfect world, all information in the AP report would be attributed to named, on-the-record sources who could be held accountable for the accuracy of their information.

At times, however, there may be a need to use anonymously attributed information in order to tell an important story. This is allowed by AP in carefully defined circumstances: if the information is from a credible source with direct knowledge; if it brings to light important facts that otherwise would remain in the shadows; and if the information can be obtained no other way.

Valuable news often originates from whistleblowers who would be in danger of losing their jobs, or in some countries their freedom or their lives, if the information was traced back to them. News of official abuses, human rights violations, war crimes or environmental dereliction are some of the areas where anonymous sourcing has broken a story wide open -- think Watergate or Abu Ghraib. In cases such as these, with the approval of managers, the AP may grant anonymity to the whistleblower, in text withholding the name and in video and photos showing them from behind or in silhouette.

A man is silhouetted while watching toward high rise buildings at Shinjuku shopping and entertainment district in in Tokyo, March 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

In addition, for anonymously sourced material, the AP routinely requires extra corroboration in the form of more than one independent source. And managers need to approve any use of anonymous material.

At the same time, there is a lesser variety of anonymity that has become all too common. Sometimes, paid spokespeople find it inconvenient to allow their names to be used even for official information. In some parts of the world, it is against rules or custom for spokespeople to be identified by name. Wherever possible, AP journalists are urged to push back against such requests for anonymity, pressing for permission to use the name or bypassing the information if necessary.

Journalists themselves can help to resist the contagion of anonymity by avoiding such tropes as citing unnamed “diplomats” or “analysts” for facts or views that are widely prevalent and could be obtained easily enough elsewhere. Another poor practice is quoting from social media posts in which the real identity of the poster is unknown. (Just say no, no matter how pithy or amusing the tweet.) Both these practices are banned under our standards.

The bar against anonymous comment is set high at AP. When the AP does agree to use anonymous material, reporters must have a good reason. We should provide as specific as possible a description of the source to establish his or her credibility (for example, “according to top White House aides" or "a senior official in the agency directly involved in the discussions") and, when relevant, describe the source's motive for disclosing the information. If a story hinges on leaked documents, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible.

AP’s Statement of News Values and Principles lays out the rules. Anonymous material may be used only if:

  • The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
  • The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
  • The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.