The Usefulness of Anonymous Sources

11 March 2009

5:42 PM

11 March 2009

5:42 PM

Glenn Greenwald is, as Julian Sanchez says, back on the warpath. This time he’s blasting the continued use of anyonymous sources and what he sees as their corrupting impact upon journalism. Greenwald makes some perfectly good points but I doubt that the situation will change anytime soon, even at papers that claim to disdain the usue of anonymous sources (that would be all of them) yet know they cannot kick the habit either (that too would be all of them).

One thing Greenwald doesn’t point out, however, is how useful anonymous sources are to journalists. That anonymity is good for the source is a given, but it works for the hack too. Apart from anything else, there’s the question of what might be termed "source inflation": that is, giving the impression that the source is more important, more central, more knowlegdable than they really are. Sometimes these "senior officials" or "source familiar with the thinking" or "well-connected Democrat" are not actually all that they seem. That is, if you were to publish their names people might ask "Well, what do they really know?" or point out that far from being "well-connected" so-and-so is simply the most famous gossip in town. But if their names were printed the story might collapse. And that can’t be allowed to happen.


So, as I say, there’s "source inflation" but there’s also the Convenience of Intrigue. That is, anonymity preserves the illusion that there’s something faintly scandalous about the information being peddled. Anonymous briefings, no matter how banal, smply sound better than on-the-record responses. There’s the tiny whiff of the illicit, the sense that "I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but…" That this frequently cloaks boring or routine observations is not the point. The usefulness of this to the jouralist is clear: it allows one to write a story and make it seem much more cloak-and-dagger and, consequently, much more illuminating than it really is. It makes things seem more exciting and preserves the notion of the journalist as daring undercover muckraker, even if they’re just being spoon-fed nonsense by spin doctors. Stripping away anonymity would be to spoil the mystery and ruin the illusion.

In other words, the use of anonymous sources exalts both the source and the journalist. So don’t expect anything to change very much any time soon.

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Show comments
  • ndm

    There was an amusing use of anonymous sourcing a few years ago when journalists accompanying Cheney on a trip to Asia interviewed a “Senior Administration Official” who, though using phrases like “the president and I,” insisted on anonymity.

    Slate magazine had an interesting article on attribution a few years ago. It explained who is a “senior official.”