While acknowledging that the "unbridled use" of anonymous sources by the media can result in credibility issues, Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times, said their use will continue to increase and become even more valuable.
In his address to the 56th Institute for Ethics in Journalism at Washington and Lee University, on Friday, Nov. 8, Baquet said that the current atmosphere in which the administration of President Barack Obama is seeking to plug government leaks has made anonymous sources all the more critical.
"In this atmosphere, whether we like it or not, we will need anonymous sources as never before, and we need to assure them that the anonymity will stick," said Baquet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has held numerous posts at the Times and also has worked at the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Baquet admitted that anonymous sources led the Times to one of its greatest failures — "the bad reporting in the pre-war buildup to the Iraq War. We forgot, sadly, that the best use of anonymous sources is to challenge the government, not to let the government hide behind the weaknesses of its arguments, to use anonymity to tell lies or to slander."
Baquet said that the problem is not in the use of anonymous sources. The media fails, he said, when they stop being aggressive watchdogs, not when they begin granting anonymity.
He distinguished between what he termed "ritualized" anonymous sources, referring to legislative aides whose goal is to get the boss's name in the newspaper, or the senior official who tries to spin a room full of journalists. Over against these "ritualized" sources are those individuals who take risks "that are crucial to a journalist's role in a democracy, which is holding power to accountability."
Baquet argued that the use of anonymous sources will continue because of the nature of the war on terrorism. "So much of the government's work is done in secret, and the only way to describe it to the world is by talking to people who risk their careers, and nowadays possibly even risk imprisonment for talking."
The burden, he added, is to grant anonymity out of necessity and not convenience.
"You will see these sources more and more," he said. "My only plea is that you don't cringe but rather remember what you would not know if they did not exist — the undeclared war, the government mishaps, and the increasing power of an intelligence community with almost unbelievable access to technology that can ferret out the smallest bits of information about us."
The Journalism Ethics Institute is a two-day event that brings together eminent professionals from throughout the country and students in the journalism ethics class to explore ethical cases that the journalists present.
The institutes are funded by the Knight Program in Journalism Ethics and are co-sponsored by W&L's Department of Journalism and Mass Communications.