Yahoo News explains: A guide to anonymous sources

Kate Murphy

Anonymous sources: it’s a hot topic, thrust back in the national spotlight this week and in the crosshairs of President Trump.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an op-ed from an unidentified “senior official in the Trump administration” claiming to be part of “the resistance” inside the White House.

The president later lashed out via Twitter: “So if the failing New York Times has an anonymous editorial – can you believe it? Anonymous, meaning gutless, a gutless editorial – we’re doing a great job.”

The Times said it published the op-ed to get the information out, but without the author’s name, in order to protect the job of the senior White House official.

Just a day earlier, the Washington Post released excerpts from an explosive book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward were revealed that paints a picture of a “nervous breakdown” of the Trump White House. Woodward is best known for his reporting with the Washington Post that uncovered the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon’s downfall. His latest book uses confidential background interviews from current and former White House staffers, meeting notes, personal diaries and government documents.

The president told the media it was “a work of fiction” and released a series of angry tweets:

A June 2018 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found that U.S. adults estimate that 62 percent of the news in newspapers, TV and radio is biased, and estimate that 44 percent of the information is inaccurate.

When news organizations use an unnamed source, they are asking readers to trust the credibility of the information at a time of public distrust in the media. There’s a high bar for using anonymous sources in a news story, and deciding not to reveal a writer’s identity is often considered a last resort.

The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press follow some general rules for relying on an anonymous source:

  • The information is vital and newsworthy.
  • The information isn’t available from any other source.
  • The source is reliable and has firsthand, direct knowledge of the information.
  • The source would risk losing his or her job or risk safety if his or her name was revealed.

The use of anonymous sources must be approved by a department head and submit to multiple levels of fact checking before publication. The identity of the anonymous source(s) are typically known to the editor as well as the reporter.