Using anonymous sources

For journalists working on human rights issues, anonymous sources are a special category. Human rights stories are always political and often emotional. They will always produce strong reactions, positive and negative, and people will want to take sides.

Human rights reporting can lead to further investigation and prosecution. Those in power, or perpetrators, are likely to react strongly. They may attack the media verbally or even physically. Or they may use violence to try to silence your sources. Your stories could lead to further human rights violations.

The strong reactions and violence may not be your fault. But fear of retribution will affect your work and may prevent your sources from speaking to you. Some sources may want to remain anonymous; out of fear, they will only speak to you if you can guarantee that they will not be named.

Using anonymous sources

Anonymous sources may give you the core of a story; sometimes background or insider information; sometimes just a tip-off. Whatever the value or amount of information, you must handle requests for anonymity with great care.

Should you use anonymous sources?

This is a difficult decision that raises serious ethical issues. Some media forbid the use of anonymous sources. Others allow it, but with strict guidelines.

In general, sources who speak on the record are always the best option in any story. But sometimes, you do not have a choice. Some stories would never be published if journalists did not have the option of allowing sources to be anonymous.

Why use anonymous sources?

  • To get the story out if there is no other way.
  • To protect your source. Sources may risk their reputations, jobs or even their lives by speaking to journalists.
  • To protect your relationship with your source. If you fail to protect a source who has asked to remain anonymous, you will lose that source.
  • If you use them carefully, anonymous sources can be very useful.

Why is it better to use named sources?

  • Named sources give the story credibility: they are like witnesses.
  • They are more likely to tell the truth.
  • They are less likely to change their story.
  • The journalist is seen to be acting professionally; that is, reporting what is happening; what others see and say.
  • Readers can make up their own minds about whether to believe what the source says, based on the person’s reputation or position.

What are the arguments against using anonymous sources?

  • Anonymous sources create an atmosphere of gossip, rumor and speculation.
  • The public might think the journalist is making the story up.
  • Anonymous sources may be promoting certain agendas or interests and using the journalists for their own ends, leading to bias.
  • It is harder for the public to decide whether to believe what the source says, because they don’t know the person’s reputation, position or connections.

What should you do if you believe a source might be at risk?

Any source in a human rights story could be at risk, whether named or anonymous. So you always have to assess the risks. Whenever you believe there are risks to sources, ask:

  • Who else is working on the issue? Are there any NGOs or human rights groups who are happy to be public and who you could use as a source for the same information? There might be less of a risk for an organization with a high public profile.
  • How might your story be used? Who will pick up the information and use it to further their interests?
  • Are their interests good or bad?
  • What are the possible results? For example:
    • Prosecutors for the International Criminal Court (ICC) might use your story for the basis of investigations into individuals linked to human rights abuses. Your sources become potential witnesses and the risk to their safety is high.
    • Your story might lead to local police investigation. The risks to the safety of sources are also high.
    • Your story might lead to one or more people losing a job.
    • It may lead to stigma; for example, HIV/AIDS sufferers and women who have been raped are often stigmatized by their communities when their names are published. They may be isolated and excluded from communal resources, like wells.
    • Relatives of sources may be targeted; for example, their children may be bullied at school.
  • If the source wants to be anonymous, ask the source directly: “Why do you want to remain anonymous?”
  • Carefully assess the answer. Ask yourself:
    • Why do I think they want to remain anonymous?
    • What are the advantages for the source?
    • What are their interests or agendas in publicity?
    • Are they perhaps using me to take revenge on someone?
    • Could they deny the story afterwards?

Anonymous sources: the golden rules

  • Once a promise of confidentiality has been given, it must be honored
  • All sources of information must be carefully and critically assessed and checked
  • The anonymous source must be reliable; the information must be accurate (as with all sources)
  • Try to quote anonymous sources as little as possible; rather use their information as background and try to get others to go on the record
  • Only use anonymous sources if they are essential to the report
  • Only quote anonymous sources when you are giving information, not opinion or speculation
  • Follow your outlet’s guidelines on using anonymous sources

What happens if you are challenged to identify or disclose your source?

Anyone can challenge you to identify your sources. Problems only arise if those who want to know who your informants are use force. Force can either be illegal – you could be detained or beaten up; or legal – you could be summoned to give evidence.

A summons to appear in court will cause serious problems if you have promised to protect your sources. In deciding what to do if you are on trial for refusing to disclose your sources, you will have to weigh many factors: the likely sentence (will you have to go to prison or pay a fine?); the risk to your credibility; the risk to the safety of the source; and the likelihood of being able to defend your case successfully. You could discuss the issue with the source, but if s/he absolutely refuses to be named, you will have no option but to face the consequences.

Most countries do not guarantee a journalist’s right to protect sources, and journalists in many countries have been sent to jail for refusing to identify their sources in court.