The180·The 180

Not every story needs a Deep Throat: news and anonymous sources

In the wake of Donald Trump's criticism of anonymous sources, Peter Klein, journalist, associate professor in journalism at UBC, and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre, argues media should limit the use of confidential sources.
Peter Klein admits there's something appealing about the mystery of anonymous sources - but that doesn't mean journalists should use them all the time. (David Horemans/CBC)
Listen8:58

U.S. President Donald Trump wants the news media to stop using anonymous sources

Late last month, at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee, Trump excoriated journalists for using anonymous government insiders as the basis for several damaging stories. Anonymous sources were used in the stories that brought down National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, and forced Attorney general Jeff Sessions to step away from an investigation into Russian interference in the US election.

'They shouldn't be allowed to use sources' 1:16

While anonymous sources have led to tangible change in the White House, Peter Klein argues that newsmedia should rethink their use.

Klein is an Emmy-award winning journalist, Associate Professor at UBC, and Executive Director of non-profit journalism organization Global Reporting Centre. He says using anonymous sources can erode trust in media. 

By relying so heavily on anonymous sources, we're stepping in to that narrative that the President has created. - Peter Klein, Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre

"A primary danger is you don't know if that person is telling the truth or not... (and) the public is confused. Donald Trump, with the rhetoric he has been spewing - which I don't agree with, the media does not lie, does not make up sources - but with all of that rhetoric out there, the public gets even more confused I think. Certainly the U.S. public in many cases. And by relying so heavily on anonymous sources, we're stepping in to that narrative that the President has created. Which is saying that the media doesn't really know what they're doing, they're making stuff up, they're grasping at straws to criticize me. And a lot of people I think are buying that story."

Klein says the use of anonymous sources is celebrated when it leads to truth and change, such as in the case of Michael Flynn. But journalists are quick to forget when their use ends in failure and manipulation. 

We saw this extensively in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Where journalists were constantly being fed anonymous information.- Peter Klein

"We saw this extensively in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Where journalists were constantly being fed anonymous information from high level CIA, about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Well, of course we know now looking back on that, that information, that really reputable experienced reporters were essentially parroting and bringing to the public, was wrong. What were their motivations? Well, you can only speculate, but clearly, the Bush administration wanted to go to war, and there were people within that administration who were feeding this information."

While agreeing that anonymity is sometimes the only way to get at the truth, Klein particularly cautions against the low-level use of anonymous sources, such as the regular contact between political reporters and government officials about the content of upcoming press conferences, and future government policy considerations. He says granting anonymity has become far too commonplace, partly due to its edgy appeal among journalists. 

It's enticing to use anonymous sources. There's kind of a mystique to having anonymous sources. Ever since Deep Throat in Watergate, this sort of mystery of the guy in the trench coat in the garage giving you information.- Peter Klein

"It's enticing to use anonymous sources. There's kind of a mystique to having anonymous sources. Ever since Deep Throat in Watergate, this sort of mystery of the guy in the trench coat in the garage giving you information that's going to blow up the whole government. Journalists love the idea of anonymous sources. I remember the first time I met with an anonymous source. It was kind of a Deep Throat experience, in a hotel lobby and he wanted to meet there in person, and that sort of thing is fun and it's intriguing, but ultimately is not doing a service necessarily to the public."

Klein says he'll probably use anonymous sources in the future, when the situation warrants. However, he argues the regular use of anonymous sources in matters that aren't absolutely critical to finding facts, and acting in the public's interest, will ultimately degrade the public's trust in media.

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