Andrea Rondeau column: Anonymous sources in reporting — it’s a last resort

On the whole, don’t be afraid to put your name to it.

Attribution is key in responsible reporting.

That’s why unless it is absolutely, no other option necessary, we do not include anonymous sources in our reporting to you.

And if you call and tell us something you want us to do a story about, don’t tell us at the end of the conversation that we can’t use your name. Or worse — give us your name and then claim you didn’t want us to use it in the paper when you call us up again a few days later and yell at us. When you’re talking to a reporter, assume it’s on the record, especially if we ask you for your full name and how to spell it.

The problem on our side is, even if what you’ve told us is the most interesting thing in the world, often without someone willing to put their name to it, we have nothing we can write about. That’s incredibly frustrating for reporters (and their editors).

Sometimes we can work around your reticence with official sources and the like, but think about the stories you most like to read in the paper. I bet they’re the ones where we’ve talked to everyday people about the things they’re doing, the things they think about what’s going on, and the crusades they are launching.

Stories just about officials and statistics are often much more dry and, consequently, much less read than the ones about so-and-so’s neighbour down the street that you met that time.

Officials can also tend to talk in bland jargon, whereas regular people are passionate and sound like it.

There are, of course exceptions.

I was considering those again this week as veteran reporter Bob Woodward (famously of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in the U.S.) was doing the rounds with his new book about the Donald Trump White House. It contains, as one might have guessed, anonymous sources. In such cases the reasons for not naming names are obvious: these people would at least lose their jobs should their identities be revealed. And the reasons for nevertheless using their information are equally obvious: what they have to say is about a subject of sufficient importance that the tradeoff is worth it.

One of the only times I’ve used an anonymous source was when I gave a pseudonym to the woman around whom I based a series of articles on domestic violence. Her personal story was the linchpin of the piece, the window into a haunting subject that those on the outside sometimes find very difficult to understand. Her personal safety was at stake, as well as that of her children. The story was in no way harmed or questionable by me allowing her to retain her anonymity.

It encompassed a couple of the reasons I’ll make an exception: the physical safety of a source, and the effect it could have to identify minor children in a way that could harm them.

But on the whole, don’t be afraid to put your name to it. You’ll get many more people who agree with you, I promise, and those that don’t will likely never meet you anyway.

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