In a column that explored controversy around the “White Sox think Toronto Blue Jays are cheaters” ESPN story, Bruce Dowbiggin explains his newspaper’s policy on the use of anonymous sources:
So what is the journalistic standard for anonymous sources? Policies vary in the industry, but here at The Globe and Mail, while anonymous sources are considered less than ideal, they are permitted. When an important story cannot be obtained without protecting a source who risks retribution if identified, then anonymous sources are permitted. The use of unnamed sources is not the purview of the writer, however; the paper itself makes the determination when to guard the source’s identity.
That’s the journalistic standard? That’s it? That’s no standard at all because it does not address the probems with anonymous sources.
The most important criteria is that the story must be credible. This is the biggest problem with the ESPN story. The claims made by the White Sox were not believable. If the writer does not believe that he is getting the straight goods from his source, there is no story.
The reader can’t assess the credibility of the source. The reader doesn’t know whether the source has an axe to grind. The reader doesn’t know whether the source is in a position to know anything. The reader doesn’t know whether the source is blowing a whistle on an organization or whether the source is leaking part of a story on behalf of the organization.
The writer knows all these things because the writer knows the source. The writer surely must assess the credibility and only submit the story if the source passes the smell test. If the Globe publishes a story based on anonymous sources, the Globe had better be happy to stand behind it. If Brian Burke lies on the record, the Globe is not responsible for the accuracy of their report. If Burke lies off the record, the Globe is entirely to blame if the result is an inaccurate story. Unnamed baseball players claim the Blue Jays are cheating? ESPN is also making that claim if they publish the story.
Somebody has to be responsible and accountable for an anonymous quote or claim. If the source cannot go public because of a fear or retribution, then the reporter should become responsible for the truth of whatever is being peddled. If the story turns out to be wrong, the source should be outed or the reporter should be fired.