Anonymity and Believability
“What does the journalist have to offer to these ordinary people, who ‘give a human face’ to their stories?” – Isabel Awad, Journalists and their Sources: Lessons from Anthropology
In most circumstances, anonymity should be seen as a last resort for journalists. As David Boeyink wrote in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics back in 1990, “[t]he source (who has some reason for demanding anonymity) speaks without accountability. And however confident the reporter and editor are that the source is trustworthy, the reader or viewer is deprived of the ability to make that judgment independently.” Poynter cites a 2005 American survey from the Associated Press Media Editors (APME) stating that 44 per cent of the readers say that “anonymity makes them less likely to believe what they read.” Part of this is attributed to the fact there is no way to independently verify the information.
In a 1994 article from the American Journalism Review, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Chuck Neubauer is quoted as saying: “I don’t often use anonymous sources…A story based on just anonymous sources would be a hard sell.”
A 2009 study in the Newspaper Research Journal confirmed studies done by various journals in the late 1970s and early 1990s that “the use of anonymous sources has a negative effect on readers’ perceptions of credibility.”
From a writer’s perspective, Ross said she thought it would be really hard to write a magazine feature without being able to describe the people that she would be writing about and leave out all the identifying details. And what was important to her for readers to get something out of the story.
“It’s harder for readers to really get something from a piece if they don’t have those names, images and personalities to understand it through.” – Selena Ross
Next: Guidelines for anonymity