It always happens. A story breaks and the reporter quotes anonymous sources to give the most thorough story possible. Then, without hesitation, people come out of the woodwork to say things like, “Who are your sources?”, “Tell us who you talked to!”, or “Why don’t you tell us who you talked to?”.
Immediately, a few thoughts go through my head. The first is that these people are clearly just a few trolls that just want to stir the pot. The second is the idea that maybe, just maybe, they don’t really know how investigative or original news reporting actually works.
So, let’s talk about sources and how it all works.
Now, I’ve been at this business for nearly 15 years. Whether it be covering the NHL or the gaming industry, I’ve been lucky enough to break news throughout my time with various outlets. Still, it’s frustrating when you spend hours, days, weeks, or even months talking with people for a story only for a large contingency of people to call it fake or a lie because I used the word “sources”.
Using anonymous sources is just the nature of the beast in this business. It not only protects you as a journalist, but it, more importantly, protects the people you are getting information from. Sometimes you talk to people still at a company you’re getting information about. Sometimes, it’s confidential information that could have legal ramifications should the person giving it to you be discovered. There are just a lot of reasons why you keep them anonymous.
One of the biggest reasons that journalists, myself included, keep them anonymous is to build trust.
You don’t just wake up one day and decide you are going to start breaking stories by getting exclusive information. Like with any job, it’s about networking and who you know. When you meet people who might one day give you information for stories, it’s not going to happen right away. There’s a relationship that needs to be built.
Can you as a reporter trust the information you’re being given? Are you being given proof of what you’re being told? I can’t begin to count the number of stories I’ve kept off the record just to see if the information I’m getting was accurate. I think I can confidently say that for every one or two stories I post with information, there are another 10-15 that I don’t for one reason or another.
The last thing any good journalist wants is to be known as the one who reports stories that turn out to be false. Will it happen from time to time? Of course. No reporter in this kind of work will ever be 100% accurate. If they claim to be, they aren’t being truthful. But you still want to be as close to 100% as possible. That’s why it’s important to pick and choose what information to chase and what news to break and report. Otherwise, you turn into one of those rumor mill sites that just throw out any and everything they hear and hope something sticks.
Keeping Those Anonymous Sources Happy
Now that I’ve talked about being on the reporter side of things, what about the sources giving you the information? Can they trust you to keep them protected so nothing can be traced back to them when a story drops? For many, it takes years of a relationship to be comfortable enough to give out details. For example, when I learned about the return of GM Mode, now MyGM, to the WWE games series, it wasn’t from someone I had just met. I had known the source for almost eight years at that point. While they gave me things here and there, that was the big one. That was the story that I had been chasing for months before reporting it. When they felt comfortable enough to confirm a number of things to me, it was like years of a quid pro quo agreement paying off.
I was able to prove time and time again that I would protect the information given to me. From encrypted emails to secure messaging, there are a lot of ways to keep the identity of a source safe. And if you want more exclusive information to report, you better do just that. And in some cases, agreeing to anonymity for a source will get you more information than you could ever have expected.
Lastly, to those that ask about at least mentioning what position the person giving the information holds if they are still with a company, that’s a tricky situation. Sometimes it’s perfectly okay to do. Other times, even stating something as seemingly small as that can be enough to give away to a company that let the information out. It’s really on a case-by-case basis.
So, what’s the TL;DR? Sourcing is all about protecting both the person reporting the news and the source of the information. It’s not to try to swindle or lie to the reader. It’s about doing what’s needed to get the most important details in order to get the full story.