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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink: a guide to confidential sources

“Miniature Appliance Detail” by Joe Wolf is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Two trains of thought prevail when it comes to using confidential sources. Some see them as a necessary journalistic tool — to be used sparingly — when a story wouldn’t materialize without them. Others argue that their use and overuse only erodes public trust in journalism.

Often called anonymous sources, confidential — or unnamed — sources are not anonymous to the reporter. The reporter knows the identity of the source, but withholds it from the news consumer. (Truly anonymous sourcing, such as the New York Times’ receipt of an unmarked package containing portions of Donald Trump’s tax returns, is rare).

To help navigate the ethics of this practice, we’ve collected tips and guidelines journalists should consider when using confidential sources, as well as a few resources that caution against them.

Guides to (ethically) using confidential sources

  • According to the Society of Professional Journalists, “Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens.” That said, SPJ also warns, such unnamed sources can also lead journalists down “the road to the ethical swamp.” To stay on the right side of ethics, follow SPJ’s two points.
  • Poynter offers an entire section on using confidential sources, which includes tips for keeping sources on the record, developing editorial standards for when to use unnamed sources and reasons they’re important.

How key national news organizations approach confidential sources

  • The Associated Press sets strict rules for when its reporters can use unnamed sources, including instances where “the material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report” and “is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.”
  • NPR also offers Do’s and Don’ts on using sources who won’t be named.
  • The New York Times has written a fair amount about using confidential sources. Here’s a piece from 10 years ago addressing the issue and another from this year about the newspaper’s updated policy about when sources can go unnamed.
  • Further, this piece from the Washington Post aims to demystify the how and why of confidential sourcing.

Words of caution

  • Poynter offers this incredibly pointed lecture about when unnamed sourcing is a tactic used by “lazy reporters” who are driven only by the need to break news before their competition.
  • And again, The New York Times tackles the topic, suggesting that overuse of unknown sources may cost media outlets some readers.
  • Lastly, CNN ran this conversation between one of its editors and a skeptical journalism professor who says that “news accounts that rely on confidential sources do not contain within themselves the information required for us to trust them.”

How to consume news containing confidential sources

  • Journalists should also keep the perspective of readers, viewers and listeners in mind when using unnamed sources. For that, consider FiveThirtyEight’s advice to news consumers on when to trust sources that are not identified by name.