A flurry of inaccurate stories about O.J. Simpson based on unnamed sources has rekindled the debate over their use. Detractors say they hurt the media's credibility. Defenders say without them important stories would never be told.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
Ohio University Journalism Professor Hugh Culbertson knew he had a hot topic. Editors around the country were agonizing over the use of anonymous sources, fearing they were relying on them too heavily, damaging the press' credibility in the process. Culbertson surveyed more than 200 editors.
The results: Most said competition forced them to use unnamed sources, even though 81 percent considered them inherently less believable. One-third were "unhappy to a substantial degree" with how anonymous sources were handled at their own newspapers, and editors estimated that more than half would go on the record if reporters pushed harder. "They seemed to regard unnamed attribution as a crutch for lazy reporters," Culbertson says.
That was in 1979. It's likely the findings would be similar today. The issue of anonymous sources always makes editors uncomfortable. They debate their use endlessly. But there's no indication nameless officials are going away.
"Certain stories keep bringing this issue to the fore," says Culbertson. "There was Watergate's Deep Throat in 1973, Janet Cooke [who fabricated a story that cited anonymous sources in 1981]...and now O.J. Simpson."
Concern over the use of anonymous or confidential sources is indeed back. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito angrily threatened to close Simpson's murder trial to television cameras in the wake of one controversial report. In late September, KNBC-TV reporter Tracie Savage told viewers that DNA tests showed a match between blood on a sock found in Simpson's bedroom and his former wife's blood. The link was attributed to a source who refused to be named.
Ito called the report "outrageous" and "irresponsible." KNBC first responded by sticking to its story, but days later admitted the information may not have been completely correct. This was just the latest in a series of high-profile inaccurate stories based on anonymous sources in the Simpson coverage (see "Offside on O.J.," page 21).
Pressure to be first on the Simpson case is intense. And with few knowledgeable sources speaking on the record, journalists feel compelled to rely on those willing to talk on a not-for-attribution basis.
"Every time you have a story like O.J. Simpson or Tonya Harding which relies so heavily on sources, we are under increasing pressure to put names in the attribution," says Darrell Christian, the Associated Press' managing editor. "There's a legitimate concern on the part of ‚ewspapers that they want their readers to believe what they're writing. The best way to do that is to put names with the facts."
Some would like the Simpson experience to mark the end of the unnamed sources era. "My hope is that the O.J. story will be to anonymous sources what the 'Jimmy's World' story [by Janet Cooke]..was to deception, fictional and composite characters," says Tom Brislin, who teaches journalism at the University of Hawaii and administers the Carol Burnett Fund for Responsible Journalism. If Brislin has his way, in 10 years "we'll look back..on O.J.'s world and anonymous sources as those bad old days in our ethical evolution."
Defenders of confidential sources say they bring to light important stories that otherwise would never surface. If used carefully, they say, unnamed sources are a valuable tool.
"The job of a journalist, particularly someone who's spent time dealing in sensitive areas, is to find out what really happened," says author and Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward. "When you are reporting on inside the White House, the Supreme Court, the CIA or the Pentagon, you tell me how you're going to get stuff on the record. Look at the good reporting out of any of those institutions – it's not on the record."
But opponents of the practice argue that information from unnamed people further undermines journalism's sagging credibility and is simply not worth the price.
"There's not a place for anonymous sources," says Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today and chairman of the Freedom Forum. "I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can't overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them."
While sensational sagas often bring about a burst of anonymous source stories, there is one place where information from unnamed officials is a journalism staple: Washington, D.C.
"There's just a great deal more tolerance for people going nameless in the newspapers..," says Washington Post Ombudsman Joann Byrd, former editor of the Everett Herald in Washington state. "I think there are more anonymous sources per capita in Washington than there are anywhere else in the world. Nobody has a name in Washington."
Using information from unidentified officials is simply a way of life in the nation's capital, where spokespersons at many agencies routinely speak to journalists "on background."
At the Pentagon every Tuesday and Thursday, an official gives an on-the-record briefing to defense reporters. "After the briefing is over the TV lights go off, AP says thank you and it's over," says David Wood, a Pentagon reporter for Newhouse News Service. "Then people accost the spokesman with the real questions and ask what's really going on. The spokesman can only read from the cards and give the approved line. But after the briefing, he'll talk on background" – with no names attached.
One legendary Washington anonymous source – although he ultimately wasn't all that anonymous – was Henry Kissinger (see "The 'Senior Official,' " November 1992). The former secretary of state was a master at manipulating the media, feeding headline-grabbing tidbits with the proviso that he be identified as a "senior official." During his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, Kissinger insisted on anonymity even though the information was reported by the press traveling with him and attributed to the "senior official on the plane." On one of Kissinger's sojourns, humorist Art Buchwald attributed information to a "high U.S. official with wavy hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a German accent."
Periodically, journalists grow weary of the insistence on anonymity and rebel. But generally not for long.
In 1971, then-Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee ordered that information provided by Kissinger about a pending summit meeting be attributed to him because it was simply too important to be reported anonymously, according to Walter Isaacson's book "Kissinger."
"The Post's action caused a widespread realization that reliance on backgrounders had gone too far," Isaacson wrote. Nevertheless, the White House Correspondents Association soon passed a resolution agreeing to abide by Kissinger's briefing rules.
"Part of the problem is that reporters and sources have become so comfortable with the arrangement here," says Edward Pound, an investigative reporter for U.S. News & World Report who has worked in Washington for 17 years. "If you call somebody at the White House or in an agency, they almost expect to be anonymous and they frequently won't talk unless they are."
Anonymity is not so much of a problem in Congress because many members are willing if not eager to voice on-the-record opinions, says Kevin Merida, who covers the Hill for the Washington Post. At the same time, many Hill aides are under orders not to speak for their bosses and will only talk on an unattributed basis.
At the White House, on-the-record sources are rare.
Karen Hosler of Baltimore's Sun covered the White House for five years, serving a term as president of the White House Correspondents Association. Hosler didn't like White House officials' insistence on briefing reporters without allowing their names to be used, but says she was powerless to change the situation.
"For reporters, it's difficult to unilaterally say you won't take advantage of the information," she adds. "A stand on principle just costs the story... The White House is the worst and most difficult place to report about. We as a press corps could change things if we as a group did something. But it's much too competitive and cutthroat to do that."
Everyone moans about the excessive use of unnamed sources in Washington copy, but then "they turn around and print [the stories]," says Michael Gartner, former NBC News president and now editor and co-owner of the Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa, which bans their use. "Sometimes it's a function of laziness. Sometimes it's competitiveness. There's always an excuse... Both sources and reporters know they can get by with it so they play these little games."
Some think those little games are played at the expense of the credibility of Washington copy.
"When I go to Washington and I see a proliferation of anonymous sources used daily, I don't believe it myself even when I know the authors," says Mary Hargrove, an editor and investigative reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "I think, 'Can't you take that extra step?' It's just cheap shot heaven."
While Washington may be the anonymous source capital, the phenomenon is also widespread on other competitive beats around the country. "It's a disease mostly in Washington, D.C., and the state capitals," says Steve Weinberg, an investigative reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Missouri. "I don't see it nearly as much outside of political reporting."
Beat reporters spend time developing and protecting contacts. Because of competitive pressure, many print and electronic reporters are quick to grant anonymity, sometimes even before it's requested. When he conducts discussions with journalists about hypothetical ethical dilemmas, says New York Times Assistant General Counsel George Freeman, "reporters are willing to give confidentiality at the drop of a hat."
Many journalists feel about anonymous sources the way people in troubled relationships feel about their partners: can't live with them, can't live without them.
A few news organizations refuse to quote them at all. Investigative reporters, with plenty of time to devote to projects, tend to use them sparingly. But inexperienced reporters, those covering competitive beats and journalists chasing mega-stories like O.J. and Tonya often rely on them.
Numerous news organizations have wrestled with the anonymous source question and have reluctantly concluded, like Cincinnati Enquirer Editor Lawrence Beaupre: "They're discouraged, but permitted."
Although confidential sources predate Watergate, they were infrequently used before that celebrated story, which produced the most famous unnamed source of all time. Deep Throat, whose identity remains a mystery, helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon in 1974. After that, the use of anonymous sources flourished, with many reporters considering it sexier to have an unnamed source than a named one. Then came Janet Cooke.
In 1981, Washington Post reporter Cooke wrote a disturbing story about "Jimmy," an 8-year-old heroin addict. Cooke convinced her editors, including Woodward, that she could not reveal Jimmy's identity because she had pledged to protect her sources. Post editors didn't find out that Cooke had fabricated the story until after she had won a Pulitzer Prize.
Then the pendulum swung back. Editors began demanding to know source names and became increasingly stingy in allowing reporters to grant confidentiality.
"It was cool to use them in the 1970s because of Woodward and Bernstein," says Theodore Glasser, director of Stanford University's journalism program, who's writing a book about investigative reporters with Northwestern's James Ettema. "But 1981 was a watershed year after the Janet Cooke case. Every journalism publication came out with these long essays saying we can't use anonymous sources anymore... Everyone beat their breast and said we are going to do better. But I don't think anything's really changed."
Some editors say many good stories would be missed if there were a prohibition on anonymous sources. Whistleblowers would be reluctant to come forward, as would those whose safety or job may be jeopardized by speaking publicly to a reporter.
"I think [anonymous sources] can be a very effective reporting tool," says Beaupre, president of Associated Press Managing Editors. "You simply cannot publish certain stories if you don't give anonymity based on a source's fear of reprisal or a decision that they don't want to be in the spotlight."
One recent example of a significant story based on blind sources concerned former Sen. Brock Adams. The Washington Democrat resigned after the Seattle Times published allegations of sexual misconduct against him in March 1992 (see Free Press, April 1992). Eight women charged Adams with improper behavior ranging from sexual harassment to rape over a 20-year period. None spoke on the record, although they signed affidavits promising to testify if the paper were sued. It wasn't.
The Times was sharply criticized immediately after the story broke, but the criticism faded after it became clear how meticulously the paper had handled the story.
"We feel pretty much about it today the way we did when we published it," says Executive Editor Michael Fancher. "I always go back to the notion that the choice we faced was publishing a story we believed to be true and knew to be important with anonymous sources or publishing nothing at all. Given that choice, I still think we did the right thing."
Eight months after the Adams story, the Washington Post showed that some explosive articles about powerful figures can be published with named sources. In November 1992, the Post ran a story in which 10 women accused Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, of sexual misconduct (see Free Press, January/February 1993). Four were named in the original story and eight more were identified in follow-ups.
"As you know, the allegations of sexual misconduct were serious and being made for the first time in public..," says Florence George Graves, a freelance writer who developed the story and took it to the Post. "When you are making those kinds of allegations you need to make every effort to get as many on the record sources as possible... I think it's nothing short of a miracle we got as many women as we did to go on the record."
Last year Eileen Welsome reported in the Albuquerque Tribune on government-sponsored radiation experiments on humans in the 1940s (see "Radiation Redux," March). Her articles prompted an investigation by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and a pledge to right the federal government's wrongs. While the broad outline of the story had been reported before, Welsome attached names and faces to the victims.
"My story wouldn't have been as credible had I used anonymous sources, because the facts were so outlandish and unbelievable," says Welsome, who has left the paper and is writing a book about the experiments (see Bylines, page 8). "By using names, it allowed people to make their own informed judgment about this particular period of history. If I had used 'according to a high-placed Department of Energy official' there would have been more doubts in the public's mind about the nature of the story."
Today in newsrooms across the country there is a consensus that anonymous sources weaken credibility. Yet very few news operations absolutely prohibit their use. Many have policies, written or unwritten, stressing they should be used only as a last resort.
Many editors try to restrict the use of unnamed sources by insisting reporters work harder to get someone on the record, or find a document to corroborate a story. Some insist on having at least two anonymous sources before putting a story in the paper.
Many newsrooms will permit the attribution of facts to unidentified people but not opinions. "We do not allow ambush quotes," says Stuart Wilk, deputy managing editor of the Dallas Morning News. The AP and many other newspapers have similar policies.
If a named source can't be found, according to the Washington Post's guidelines, "reporters should request an on-the-record reason for concealing a source's identity and should include the reason in the story."
Often high-level approval is required for using unnamed sources. For example, Beaupre requires a senior editor to approve their use. At the Dallas Morning News, anonymous sources must be cleared by the executive or managing editor, says Wilk, who can give permission in their absence. At the Albuquerque Tribune, says Welsome, "you need dispensation from the Pope to use an anonymous source in a news story."
News organizations tend to be more reluctant to use anonymous sources than they were 10 or 15 years ago, says William Marimow, a former investigative reporter who is now associate managing editor of Baltimore's Sun. He cites a story he wrote while at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979 about prospective police commanders getting preferential treatment on promotion exams. Marimow relied on confidential sources in reporting that officers assigned to the chief inspectors – who wrote the tests – had suspiciously high marks on them.
"I think today the editors would have tried their hardest, they might even have demanded, that I get some records somewhere to show where the officers were assigned," Marimow says. "In other words, find someone in the personnel department to give me the documents to prove the story."
When an unnamed source is used, some papers and broadcast outlets try to provide readers, viewers or listeners a clue as to where the information is coming from.
New York Times lawyer Freeman says reporters should not simply attribute information to "government sources," but should be more precise – "say what level, what department, something more than that the source is confidential, so you have some understanding where they're coming from."
That's critical to letting a reader understand whether the unnamed source has an agenda and what it might be. "The anonymous source has always been really important to news," says James D. Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune. "But you need to identify the source as to its motivations. It gives you a great deal of credibility."
While many associate confidential sources with investigative reporting, those who practice that craft now use them infrequently. They may permit sources to go off the record during preliminary interviews, but by the time they publish or go on the air, they want the facts on the record.
"Of course, you talk to everybody when you begin a story," says Philip Scheffler, a senior producer for CBS' "60 Minutes." "Off the record. On the record. In the record. For background. Not for attribution no matter what. But it's not the raw notes we are talking about. We are talking about what goes on the air." And "60 Minutes" does not use anonymous sources on the air.
Chuck Neubauer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, rarely uses unidentified sources. In a January 1993 story in the Chicago Sun-Times, Neubauer and colleague Mark Brown revealed a scheme that ultimately became part of the indictment of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat. They used just one unnamed source.
"I don't very often use anonymous sources..," says Neubauer. "A story based on just anonymous sources would be a hard sell."
Time is a crucial ally for investigative reporters. Stanford's Glasser interviewed about 20 of them and found for the most part, anonymous sources do not play an important role in their work. "They've had four months or more to work on their story," he says. "They are able to get it all on the record. The people who use anonymous sources all the time and abuse it are the ones who are pressured to get stuff into the paper everyday."
A notable exception among investigative reporters is Bob Woodward, who relied almost exclusively on anonymous sources for his latest book, "The Agenda," and has used them liberally in other major reporting projects. Woodward notes that just because something is on the record doesn't mean it's true. He says often confidential sources can be more accurate if they aren't worried about losing a job or being reprimanded.
"Look at all the stuff that's been from anonymous sources over the years and very little of it has been wrong," Woodward said at a recent journalism forum sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and AJR. "In fact, I would argue it's often more correct because the reporter knows his or her rear end is on the line."
People lie just as easily on the record, says Woodward. "You can go up as a White House correspondent and quote the president of the United States in a televised press conference. If it turns out he's lying, as it often has turned out, no one comes back and says to the reporter: 'Why did you print what the president said on the record in public?' The standard has to be: What's the quality of information?"
When Al Neuharth founded USA ¬oday, he instituted a ban on the use of blind sources. He did so, he says, because unattributed information makes it less likely that readers will believe what they read.
During USA Today's second week, White House reporter Ann Devroy phoned in a scoop about President Reagan's plans to appoint his daughter, Maureen, to the Republican National Committee. The only problem was the story was unattributed. "I saw the story and thought it was good," recalls Neuharth. "Obviously it was a plant but we don't run unidentified sources." So he insisted Devroy get Maureen Reagan on the record. Devroy did.
"I think that often happens if you simply have a policy that you don't run anonymous sources," says Neuharth, "I think a majority of sources would go on the record if pushed."
Ten years ago, journalism professor Bob M. Gassaway interviewed 15 people who had been longtime confidential news sources. "A majority of the sources said journalists faced with pressure to identify their sources should 'ask me to reconsider an agreement' of confidentiality," Gassaway wrote in the Newspaper Research Journal.
Neuharth argues that when hiding beneath the cloak of anonymity, sources sometimes tell more than they know, "especially in a political environment like Washington. They often say more than they would if they had to back it up with their name."
Peter Prichard, the current editor of USA Today, says, "We don't exactly have a no anonymous source policy. A better way to put it is we try not to abuse or overuse them."
Veteran newsman Michael Gartner is one of the most outspoken critics of the practice. After the story about O.J. Simpson's DNA match, Gartner wrote, "The lesson is this: Beware anonymous sources. They can lie without accountability. They can fudge without responsibility. They can hide behind anonymity. They can strain readers' credulity and damage journalists' credibility."
Gartner cites a personal experience with confidential sources: After the embarrassing revelation that "Dateline NBC" had rigged an explosion in a crash involving a General Motors truck, Gartner left his job as president of NBC News in March 1993. Associated Press President Louis Boccardi gave a speech around that time urging journalists not to rely on anonymous sources.
"Within an hour [after Boccardi's speech] the AP had moved a story with an anonymous source..," says Gartner. "They had a story that a source told AP that I was fired from NBC. I quit. So I called him up and said, 'What is this bullshit, Lou?' "
Boccardi investigated. A correction ran, recalls Gartner. "It said two sources told AP that I was fired," says Gartner. "Well, Jesus, there were only two people in the room when I quit. Me and [NBC President] Bob Wright."
Investigative reporter Steve Weinberg says he once allowed a source to anonymously criticize someone in a story he was writing about competing news organizations. "It turned out be untrue," says Weinberg.
He no longer uses confidential sources. While researching an unauthorized biography of industrialist Armand Hammer, Weinberg conducted many off-the-record interviews. But he only used information from them that he could document elswhere.
Each time an unnamed source turns out to be wrong or a reporter is caught fabricating anonymous information, journalism's credibility suffers. Even after years of excellent work and more Pulitzers, the Washington Post remains dogged by Janet Cooke and "Jimmy's World."
"I probably have someone bring up Janet Cooke to me every couple of weeks," says Post Ombudsman Joann Byrd, 13 years after the ill-fated story ran. "If they're mad at the Post, they'll say a 'This-is-the-newspaper-that-brought-us-Janet-Cooke' kind of remark. If they're alarmed about something they see in the paper that they're not absolutely sure they believe, then they'll say, 'Promise me this is not another Jimmy's World.' "
While it lends credibility to have a story on the record, some say it's crucial for another reason: to protect against libel charges. Janet Cooke may have cooled the enthusiasm for using unattributed sources, but others feel that massive libel awards in the early 1980s had more to do with changing attitudes about them. "The proliferation of big libel verdicts starting in 1982 and '83 made people more circumspect, more vigilant," says Baltimore's Marimow.
New York Times attorney Freeman says unnamed sources represent one of the most serious libel threats for news organizations. When a paper is sued over a story based on confidential sources, he says, "the plaintiff's lawyer will doubtless complain that either the sources didn't exist or they shouldn't have been relied on. Juries will generally believe that when those people never come into the room."
While granting anonyvity may induce reluctant or nervous sources to talk, it doesn't guarantee they will say anything worth listening to.
Associated Press Managing Editor Darrell Christian recalls that when he was working in Washington, he called a White House duty officer late one night for comment on a controversial story. The conversation went something like this:
"I'll have to go off the record," the duty officer said.
"Well, all right," Christian replied, "if you have to."
Duty officer: "OK, am I off the record?"
Duty officer: "Are you sure?"
Christian reassured him. The duty officer was finally comfortable.
"No comment," he said, confident that he'd protected his job and given Christian the quote he needed. l ###