Increasingly reporters cite anonymous sources rather than provide readers, viewers and listeners with actual names. At this conference, journalists, whose work demonstrates how information was gathered from sources who agreed to be named in the story, told how they had done their reporting to achieve this end and why it mattered that names were used. Excerpts on this topic from discussions among panel members follow. (An ellipse between quotes indicates that this material was taken from different sections of their presentations.)
Doug Frantz: Investigation of the Church of Scientology. “I wrote a 5,000-word story about a very controversial subject and in it I had one unnamed source. That was a person who was identified as a senior government official who was involved in the decision-making process. That is because the person was an IRS official who couldn’t under law speak about the internal deliberations of the IRS. But I spelled that out in the story, so I think that that provided the transparency that meets one of my [reporting] rules.”
“We have to tell our readers where these sources are coming from…. Even if you use their names, I think you need to provide some background…. One of my key sources was a private detective named Michael Shomers. From the outset he was on the record. I could use his name, and he provided me with enormous documents…. The third or fourth time I sat down with him, I asked him, ‘Why are you talking to me, because Scientology is known for going after its critics with great vigor?’ He knew this as well as anyone, having been on the attack side of it. He said, ‘Well, I don’t trust Scientology anymore, and also I had a financial dispute with my former partner at the private detective agency.’ It was good for me to know that. I also put that in the newspaper because it’s not enough that I know it, my readers have to know it, because they need to evaluate what this source is saying, not just to me, but to them in the newspaper. Even though his name is attached, I think you need that kind of transparency.”
Loretta Tofani: Investigation of rapes in jail. “The series was unusual at the time  because all the victims were named and the men who raped them were also named and quoted. The series consisted of about a dozen case studies of men who had been gang-raped: Within each case study there was the victim’s story corroborated by the rapist’s story. Also, there was medical evidence for those rapes, and the Post published the photographs of both the rapists and the victims.”
“With the rapists, I used a somewhat different approach [than I did in interviews with the victims]. I felt I didn’t have to read them their Miranda rights or warn them there was a chance of being prosecuted. I went in there and talked about jail conditions and asked them about how they had done the rape. If they said they didn’t rape someone, then I’d find the other gang rapist in the same rape and get somebody there to describe it and go back to that person with new information and the story would come out. I just used their names. I didn’t feel I was talking to somebody in the State Department where it was understood that everything was confidential. I was a reporter. They knew it. I had written to them on Post stationary and I used their names. It was simple. [And when I was with them] I was writing in my notebook.”
“This story was given to the government basically on a silver platter. It had the names. It had everything. It had medical records. It had victims’ names. It had rapists’ names…. [The government] convicted all the rapists.”
Roy Gutman: “I think it’s essential that to keep our credibility strong we have to make it clear in our coverage just where we get this stuff from and whose agenda we are pushing or whose agenda is being pushed by virtue of this story. In the last couple years there’s been a real decline in this transparency and all I can do is point to it.… It’s a terrible trend, and it’s a disastrous trend in a free society. People will stop believing us if we don’t start telling more about where we get our stores and why we’re running them.”
Bill Kovach: “The journalists who cover national security and think they have a tough time ought to look at some of this work [of reporters who investigate nonprofit groups and organizations], journalists who are putting everything on the record. These are not source stories, 5,000 words, one source. These reporters get some of the toughest information in one of the toughest areas to cover on the record…. [And] one of the results of increasing journalistic interest in nonprofits is that lawyers have talked about this kind of reporting at Bar Association meetings, and there are now law firms that specialize in calling news organizations that are investigating nonprofits and offering their services.”
Jim Tharpe: Investigation of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We did not publish anything in the series unless it was attributed to somebody. But we went beyond that. I think if we had stuck with that tack as the only thing we did in the series, we would have ended up with people at the Center easily dismissing them as disgruntled employees…. But by looking at 990’s [financial records of nonprofits], what few financial records that were available we were able to corroborate much of that information, many of the allegations these former employees had made….”
“Initially they [the people at the Center] would answer our questions in person, as long as they could tape record it. After we asked about finances, they wanted questions written down and sent to them in advance. Then they finally said, ‘We’re tired of you guys. We’re not answering anything else.’ And they completely cut us off…. [When] we asked to look at their financial records [at the 23,000 checks the Center wrote over two years], they hired an independent attorney who began threatening me, then my editor, then the publisher, and told us, ‘You’d better be careful of the questions you ask and the stories you come up with,’ and cited libel law to us. So we were under threat of lawsuit for two years, basically during the research phase of the series.”
A new twist regarding the involvement of outsiders in monitoring the actions of reporters and their use of sources surfaced in a front page story, published on July 28, 1999 in The New York Times and written by Watchdog conference participant Doug Frantz. In his story, “Journalists or Detectives? Depends on Who’s Asking,” Frantz revealed ways in which former journalists work as “investigators” for people involved in legal cases. To “gain access to sources who would be unlikely to speak to a private investigator,” these “detectives” posed as reporters. The article focused on this practice during the legal fight involving Koch Industries.
Susan Kelleher: Investigation of an infertility clinic. “My newspaper has a policy that we have to quote everybody on the record. No one is allowed to be quoted anonymously in our paper. I am enormously grateful for that [policy] because it has made me a very hard-working reporter. Had I been allowed to use anonymous sources a lot, I probably would have gotten myself into some trouble, especially early on when I was not really wise to the ways of the people who tried to manipulate. Also I think that the stories were much more solid. They had much more credibility, and I think the people also felt good about their participation in them.”
“Before anybody participates with me in a story, in the sense of a source, I tell them how I work. I tell them they have to go on the record. I tell them I am going to be asking other people about them, that even though I find them really nice people, I am still going to have to check them out. I ask them what their concerns are. I tell them what my concerns are. I tell them I don’t like to be lied to and that if I find out that I’m lied to I get really upset. I tell them basically everything they ask me. If they want to know anything about anything, if I have an answer to it, I’ll give it to them.
“I basically give them a choice of whether to be a part of the story as opposed to controlling the content. I say to them, ‘Once you agree to talk to me, that’s it. You don’t really have control, but you do have control to the degree you want to participate. And once you are on the record, if there’s something you don’t need me to know, then don’t tell me because it’s going to be on the record, and we’re not going to be playing games.’”
Journalists at the Watchdog conference agreed that the practice of relying on anonymous sources is becoming more widespread. No group of reporters uses them more often than members of the Washington, D.C. press corps. One panel member commented on troubling aspects of this practice:
Murrey Marder: “I was absolutely horrified to find out, when the Committee of Concerned Journalists was doing its conference in Washington, the explanation given by the White House press about why they’re being entrapped by their sources into non-identification. [They don’t give] even remote identification, not just inability to identify the person, but inability to identify whether they were coming from the right, left, center, upside down, or what. That, to me, is inexcusable, to have an absolutely blank source out there. There is no reason to get entrapped in that.”