Name dropping: When anonymous is OK, when it’s not
Date posted: November 1, 2013
There has been a lot of talk in the newsroom lately about when to include names of individuals in articles and when it is OK to use anonymous sources.
First, let me say that it is our policy to avoid anonymous sources.
The primary reason is motive. Why would somebody who believes strongly in something not be willing to speak on the record?
Often the answer is that they are afraid of repercussions. In a small town, this is understandable, but being afraid of what your friends and neighbors will think of you is not a convincing argument for anonymity.
In addition, utilizing anonymous sources calls into question not only the source’s credibility but ours as a newspaper.
Anonymity, as the Associated Press Stylebook says, is a last resort. The only time we would likely use an anonymous source is if somebody’s safety would be put in jeopardy by using their name. This is considered on a case by case basis.
The Sheridan Press often gets calls from angry readers. Not angry at The Press, but angry about something they’ve seen in town. These callers will rant for 20 minutes on the phone as our reporters dutifully take notes. But, at the end of the interview and the end of the rant, many of those callers refuse to tell the reporters their names.
Or, they give their names but follow up by saying, “But don’t quote me.”
This is one of the most frustrating parts of being a reporter.
You know something others don’t know. You know about a wrongdoing committed by a public figure, but there is no documentation of the wrongdoing and there is nobody who is willing to speak on the record about it.
So… What do you do? Struggle desperately to find somebody who will talk to you, often to no avail.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are cases in which we don’t identify specific characters in an article.
For example, in cases involving sexual abuse, the victim’s name is omitted. Even though some of these victims appear in public courts and testify before juries.
I once reported on a multi-day sexual assault and domestic abuse case. I never once included the victim’s name, or her son’s name.
Naming the victim can subject the individual to further public scrutiny and blame, often deterring victims of such crimes from coming forward.
So, we don’t do it.
Anonymity is a slippery slope, though. Larger newspapers that deal often with issues of national security or the federal government utilize anonymous sources by simply calling them things like, “sources close to the President,” or “senior White House officials.”
This, too, is frustrating to me as a reporter.
In those situations, though, I also understand that very few things would become public if it weren’t for those unnamed sources. As crackdowns on leaks to reporters increase, too, it gets harder and harder for reporters to do their jobs.
Still, in Sheridan, the use of anonymous sources will remain a rarity.
Kristen Czaban is managing editor at The Sheridan Press.