Making Sense of the Media
3:06 pm
Mon April 15, 2013

Making the Choice To Use Anonymous Sources

WUSF's Craig Kopp talks with Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense Making Project" about why reporters use anonymous sources in some stories and why that shouldn't be approached lightly.
U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell
Credit motherjones.com

"Mother Jones" magazine decided to publish recordings of a campaign strategy session in the Louisville, Ky. offices of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell while keeping the source of that recording anonymous.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense Making Project" says some stories are worth the risks involved in using anonymous sources.

But, she added, "most are not."

McConnell has not commented on the substance of the recording, in which then-potential opponent actress Ashley Judd's religious beliefs and bouts with depression were discussed.

But, McConnell referred to the recordings as "bugging my headquarters much like Nixon and Watergate." He has called for an FBI investigation.

That could put some pressure on "Mother Jones" to reveal its sources -- the kind of heat already being felt by Fox News reporter Jana Winter. A court has been threatening to order her to reveal the name of the person who told her about a notebook that suspect James Holmes allegedly sent to a health-care professional before a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo.,  movie theater.

"There are good reasons and bad reasons to use anonymous sources," said McBride. "The good reasons are sometime you can't get at really significant information that the public needs to know and that will inform the public debate on critical issues unless you use anonymous sources. The bad reason reporters use anonymous sources is because of competitive pressures. A lot of times sources don't want to go on record for selfish reasons or unimportant reasons and reporters -- rather than insisting that they go on the record or passing the story by -- will do a lot of stories with anonymous sources because they know if they don't do them their competitors will."

At the very least, McBride says, reporters should always tell the public why their source wants to remain anonymous.

"If he's going to be fired from his job, that's one thing," McBride explained. "But, if he just is trying to spin the debate that's a completely different reason and the audience would look at that information in a different light if they knew it existed."

Since any legal protections reporters have to keep sources anonymous is open to interpretation, McBride said that the decision to keep a source anonymous really becomes a personal one for journalists.

"I talk to reporters all the time about whether they should use an anonymous source. And, one of the questions I ask them is 'do you think this story is so important that you would go to jail over it?' If you got subpoenaed into court and a judge said tell me who your source is and you refused to do that the judge would send you to jail for six month or until you revealed the source. Some stories are worth it. Most are not."