The Ethics Of Leaks: The Increasing Use of Anonymous Sources

People are interested in factual knowledge about global happenings in the current global condition, and information is likely the most sought after. Journalists are responsible for obtaining, evaluating, generating, and presenting information and news. Accounts of events should be factual, and sources of information should be identified to give journalists' information credibility (Marcus, Jon 14). Yet, anonymous sources are frequently employed to provide accounts of occurrences in which the news is delivered but the source is not identified. In journalism, the use of anonymous sources, however, has created a major debate. People have expressed mixed reaction on the same, a section of journalists and the public believes that it is important source of information while others argue that it does not give credibility to information (Marcus, Jon 16). The law concerning unidentified sources is not clear; courts can compel a journalist to name the source of the data. Contrarily, journalists may find themselves battling lawsuits for failing to keep their promise of not naming their sources. Therefore, this paper examines arguments for and against anonymous sources in journalism, and analyses examples of passed stories written based on unnamed sources.

Arguments for Anonymous Sources

Some stories are sensitive and involve powerful people in the government, and this makes it difficult for unnamed sources to come out and give their account concerning the same due to fear. As such, journalists are compelled to play by the terms of anonymous sources. They agree to provide information on condition that their identity will not be exposed. In most occasions, the accounts of anonymous sources have assisted in finding more facta concerning various stories. Primarily, they are often the key to unlocking the biggest stories of corruption and illegal government dealings that are concealed from the public (Marcus, Jon 15). As such, condemning unidentified sources, or exposing them to the public and government authorities will discourage most people who would like to share sensitive stories.

Anonymous sources have no ill motives about the persons involved in the information that they give to journalist. Most of them are people who mean well to the society, and they believe that the public has to know what they feel is not right. For instance, they often want to expose illegal activities, or immoral acts by respected members of the community. The sources do not seek to advance their personal agenda neither do they intend to embarrass their victims in their accounts. They are merely concerned with the public rights to know (Marcus, Jon 17).

In fact, SPJ code of ethics have provided guidelines for dealing with anonymous sources, this ensures that information from such sources is well scrutinized and is not an attack to any personality. For example, journalists should question the motives of anonymous sources before they can adopt their stories. Besides, they are allowed to promise anonymity to unidentified sources, but they should clarify conditions that are attached to their promises (Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 66). Primarily, this is done in exchange of information. Journalists, must, therefore, keep their promise. The US court system acknowledges the use of anonymous sources, and the court had ruled that sources whose identities are revealed may sue for damage.

The importance of anonymous source was revealed in the Watergate scandal of 1970. The Washington Times used unidentified source called Deep Thought to do a story concerning the white house cover on the Watergate break-in. The scandal started when some burglars were arrested in the office of the Democratic National Committee that is located in Watergate buildings in Washington DC. The burglars were caught in the act stealing documents and wiretapping phones in what was believed to be assistance towards the re-election of President Richard Nixon (Marcus, Jon 14). However, there was no evidence linking the white house to the operation. Nonetheless, President Richard Nixon distant himself from the incident and refused to accept responsibility, reports indicate that Nixon undertook aggressive steps to cover up the incident. The scandal emerged at a time when the US was in electioneering period, and also at war with the Vietnam. Hence, the country was really divided.

The campaigns went on and Nixon was re-elected. But, they used aggressive tactics and illegal espionage as evidence later revealed in may 1974. The information that led to the unearthing of this story came from unidentified source, Deep Through. He revealed to a young journalist named Woodward that Nixon’s re-election committee was involved in the Watergate break-in. Woodward promised Deep Thought that he would not reveal his identity as the source of the story. The story hit media houses as breaking news, subsequent pressure and threats of impeachment made Nixon to resign as the president of the US (Marcus, Jon 19). Watergate scandal is a historical event in the history of journalism, and the best case that has been used to demonstrate the importance of anonymous sources. It also revealed the commitment of journalist to their promise to unidentified sources of information; this is because the identity of the source remained a secret despite the scandal involving the president of the US.

The anonymous source was only identified as a top FBI official, and, therefore, implying that these sources do not act in bad faith, or to achieve personal agenda. They believe that the people have a right to know what is concealed from them by the government, they intent to reveal crime and corruption that is perpetuated by elected leaders.

The second story that confirms the importance of the use of anonymous sources is the 2002 report made by the Globes Spotlight Team on clergy sex abuse in Boston. Walter V Robinson among other reporters got information from unnamed sources. The investigations by the team revealed massive defilement in the church by clergies (Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 54). The source narrated to the team how the priests involve young people in satisfying their sexual demands. Investigations confirmed the claims of the sources. Many people presented testimonies concerning the sexual experience they had with the clergy. The report indicated that there was a pattern of sexual assault and cover-ups in cases that involved senior clergymen. Boston investigation made other cases of sexual assault from other Catholic diocese across the United States and other parts of the world to be brought to light through victim confessions. This case indicates the usefulness of anonymous sources in revealing immorality and corruption in various aspects in the community. Majority who support unnamed sources argues that what matters is the truth in a story, the name of the source must not be included in story since it compromises there security in some instances.

Arguments against Anonymous Sources

Credibility is the center of discussions for people who believe that information from anonymous sources must not be used as an account of event. As such, unidentified sources violate credibility as a professional requirement in journalism(Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 60). Nonetheless, the readers can lose confidence in media houses upon realizing that the information they provide do not have sources. To enhance credibility and journalism, reports should be scrutinized, and sources must be named before the information is made public. The use of unidentified, sources therefore, threatens the independence, precision, and accountability of information that is passed by the media to the public.

Unidentified sources tend to influence the manner in which journalist cover news making the unsuitable sources of information. For instance, most government confidential sources demand that an interview by journalist must be conducted on deep background; these briefings are typically meant to put administration policies on the light. Primarily, the accuracy of information from unnamed sources is often very questionable, and if the news is wrong media houses suffer major public image blow (Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 64). In this case, the anonymous sources have nothing to lose when the information proves inaccurate.

The United States Supreme Court made it clear that when a promise to conceal the identity of the source is revealed, he or she has a right to sue the media house or the journalist for damages. The argument of the court was that it has a responsibility of protecting people who are injured when they make promises to others and that promise is bracken. However, the law is controversial on this issue, legal protection to journalist keeping sources secret as well as other confidential information is not secure 100%. Meaning, journalist who refuses to reveal the identity of their sources risks jail term(Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 61). For instance, Judith miller, a journalist of the New York Times was jailed for three months when he refused to name the source of her information towards claims that Valerie Plame was an employee of the CIA. Nonetheless, Ken Peters, a reporter from Hamilton spectator Canada was convicted for refusing to reveal the source of his information and leaks that appeared in his article about abuses in one of Hamilton’s nursing homes. According to Peters, he had a moral obligation not to reveal the identity of his anonymous source. Peters was also fined $31,600 for failing to comply with a court order by the Supreme Court of Canada (Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 55).

Ethical standards of operations are violated when sources of information are not named. The public has a right to know the source of information that media houses present to them. Therefore, news without sources lacks credibility and accountability, such information is not suitable for the public consumption. However, there is an ethical dilemma in dealing with the protection of the identity of sources. The codes and ethical practices in journalism provide for the protection of the identity of anonymous sources, but this is not practical in most criminal justice system such as the US (Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 57). As indicated earlier in this paper, the courts can compel a journalist to name their sources for the sake of criminal investigations and administration of justice. Contrarily, the courts may press charges against journalist who reveal the identity of their sources as a result of violating the promise they made to them.

The debate of anonymous sources does not seem to end since these sources have been very useful in bringing to light some of the greatest corruptions immoral dealings of the government and other organizations. On the other hand, they compromise the integrity and accountability of the media houses since they risk losing the public faith and trust when they report information without sources (Marcus, Jon 21). As such, there should be a balance and agreed policy on the use of anonymous sources in journalism, these sources are not necessarily incorrect nut the manner but handling the information that they give is very important in determining the accuracy of such information.

Journalists should question the intentions of unidentified sources before taking information from them. When promises are made to unnamed sources, it is essential to clarify conditions of the pledge. Information from such sources should only be taken if the journalist trusts the source; this will save the media house and the reporter from humiliations when the information is not true (Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson 54). It is crucial to ascertain if the information is also available elsewhere to enable the journalist to make comparison, and determine the credibility of the information.

In my opinion, I believe that anonymous sources should be used by journalists to derive information. There are many instances where these sources have acted as whistleblowers in crucial controversies, and hence, assisting in solving public stalemate such as the Watergate break-in scandal where nobody knew exactly who was responsible for the break-in. However, the media houses should have mechanisms of digging more on anonymous reports before making them public to avoid awkward instances when such information proves inaccurate (Marcus, Jon 14). On the other hand, the courts must provide sections that protect anonymous sources so that people are not scared of insecurity or fear of losing their jobs when they act as whistleblowers in corrupt government agencies and other organizations. The criminal justice system should not convict journalists who refuse to name their sources so long as the information is true.


The use of anonymous sources has elicited mixed reactions from both professional journalists and the members of the public. Some people believe that these sources are crucial in journalism, and have often acted as breakthrough to fascinating stories of public interest. Contrarily, other feels that these sources violates the code of conduct of journalism and limits the public rights to get access to full information. However, ethical dilemma exists in dealing with the cases of anonymous sources. Journalist is allowed to keep the name of the sources secret as a moral obligation of protecting the promise that they make to anonymous sources. Conversely, the courts also compel journalists to reveal the identity of their sources, and they are convicted when they fail to do so. Journalists are required to determine the intentions of their anonymous sources before they accept to do their stories. Moreover, they should ascertain if the information is available elsewhere to allow for comparisons, trust is crucial when adopting a story from unidentified sources. It is crucial to encourage information from anonymous sources, and also to develop policies that protect them to support more people to come up with revelations concerning corrupt government officials and illegal government operations. The use of unnamed sources however, compromises the accuracy and accountability of the story.

Works Cited


Marcus, Jon. "The Ethics Of Leaks: The Increasing Use of Anonymous Sources and Leaks Has Intensified the Debate over How to Vet Information and Sources." Nieman Reports, vol. 71, no. 3, Summer2017, pp. 14-23

Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva and Esther Thorson. "Anonymous Sources Harm Credibility of All Stories." Newspaper Research Journal, vol. 30, no. 4, Fall2009, pp. 54-66

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