Use of Unnamed Sources Faces New Scrutiny

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The Newsweek story raises fundamental journalistic questions about using anonymous sources. Bill Kovach, founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, discusses the implications.


Newsweek's retraction of that story about the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay has raised a core journalistic question: When should reporters use anonymous sources? Bill Kovach is the founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and he's been in the news business for 40 years.


Mr. BILL KOVACH (Committee of Concerned Journalists): Good to be here.

MONTAGNE: Why do journalists rely on anonymous sources?

Mr. KOVACH: Well, you know, there are times when vital information that the public needs to know can only be had by use of anonymous sources. There are people who might jeopardize their own safety. They might jeopardize their career by speaking on the record with the press. And in those cases, rare cases, reporters and editors have to work out a system whereby they can use anonymous sources, but it should be very tightly restricted.

MONTAGNE: Well, I suppose the classic argument for anonymous sources would be Watergate.

Mr. KOVACH: Watergate would not have come to large public exposure had it not been for very liberal use of anonymous sources, but very tightly controlled, too.

MONTAGNE: So there are beats--the White House, for example--where anonymous sources are used where now one would fear that an agenda is being pushed.

Mr. KOVACH: No question an agenda is being pushed. I mean, leadership leads, and in order to lead, as Jody Powell...

MONTAGNE: Jody Powell, press secretary for President...

Mr. KOVACH: ...was the press secretary...

MONTAGNE: ...Jimmy Carter.

Mr. KOVACH: Jimmy Carter--when I was running The New York Times' Washington bureau, Jody said, `Well, you know, we'll always be in conflict, because we use information to get people to go where we want them to go on issues, and you use information to help them make up their mind independent of where we want them to go.' So leadership and journalism are always going to be in conflict on that. So you have to understand when they're talking to the press, they're talking to try to convince the public through the press what they should think about an issue.

MONTAGNE: Some news organizations have tightened their rules on the use of unnamed sources. What pressures are they responding to?

Mr. KOVACH: Well, I think virtually every news organization that I know of in the last two or three years has significantly tightened their rules on anonymous sourcing, and they're doing it for the simple reason that credibility that the public invests in the press has been rapidly declining in the last several years. And one of the arguments that the Committee of Concerned Journalists makes to news organizations is that transparency is their best friend. The more information they share with the public about how they got their information, how they know what they know and why they believe it, the more likely the people are going to decide on their own to trust you. I mean, why should they believe a source they don't know? So you at least have to suggest to them what the source's position is, how the source would know what agenda, if any, the source has, to the extent you can try to round out that source so the public can say, `Well, OK. That sounds like I can accept that,' or, `No, I can't.'

MONTAGNE: Let's use the Newsweek story as an example. Here's a story--Guantanamo Bay prisoner abuse. Can a story like that be told with everybody going on the record?

Mr. KOVACH: It's hard to imagine that the true inside story in any closed system, and Guantanamo certainly is a closed system--and those are just the kinds of stories journalists should pursue--but it puts another level of pressure on the journalist; by putting it in their publication, they are representing to the public that `You can trust me.' And if that's the case, then they better be sure they can trust the reporter to have verified the source.

MONTAGNE: Bill Kovach is the founder and director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. KOVACH: My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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