When President Trump claims that reports in the New York Times, CNN and elsewhere are “fake news,” his declaration is rarely met with universal concurrence. “Inconvenient news” might be closer to the mark. The President is on firmer ground when he criticizes reporters’ use of unnamed sources. News stories developed from “sources familiar with the investigation” may not be fake, but they are suspect and their use is unprofessional.
Both the Times and the Washington Post, to name but two, routinely rely on anonymous sources for breaking news coming out of the White House. Titillating and eyebrow-raising these reports may be, but they lose their edge and credibility when the reporter fails to provide the corroboration that a named, believable source imparts.
The late James Russell Wiggins, who owned and edited The Ellsworth American from 1966 until 1991, would not allow anonymous sources when he was editor of the Washington Post in the 1950s and ’60s.
The familiar rejoinder from reporters who use unnamed sources is that scoops would dry up without the assurance of confidentiality. The news from the most private corners of the White House has certainly been arresting: top aides fumbling, fuming and about to quit; showdowns between top advisers; turnover and turmoil. Evidently, many individuals in high places are pleased to share with reporters what they have witnessed. Just don’t use my name.
An alarming amount of breaking news relies heavily, sometimes entirely, on anonymous sources. Reporters and editors, driven to be the first with the story, cut corners, fudge the principle of attribution and deliver up one sizzler after another. Much of the time, the stories prove accurate. Still, there is the occasional Janet Cooke, who invented a child heroin addict, wrote up the saga for the Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
With skepticism and outright attacks on the media on the rise, this would be an opportune moment for journalists — reporters, editors and publishers — to reconsider their dependence on anonymous sources. Their use erodes public confidence in what is reported. And occasionally, some leaked tidbit takes the reporter over that slippery slope at the bottom of which is the mire known as “fake news.”