Anonymous Sources Run Amok

In their zeal to squeeze Hamas, did Israel and Egypt irresponsibly ignore US and UN warnings that might have made war in Gaza avoidable?

I don’t know.

But that’s what the Wall Street Journal (click via Google News) implies in a reconstruction of events leading up to Operation Protective Edge.

Unfortunately, this reconstruction is  based entirely on anonymous sources.

Although anonymous sources are sometimes necessary and increasingly used (often unnecessarily, sometimes absurdly), they present ethical problems. As a reader, you can’t judge the info. Accepting an anonymous assertion requires you to make a leap of faith that the source is reliable and that the information (or opinions) expressed are important enough to justify putting on the record.

You can imagine the possibilities of abuse here.

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That’s why papers, in the absence of transparency, set down guidelines on anonymous sources. An article that doesn’t cite any source by name — not one — can’t possibly follow any such codes of practice.

Earlier this year, Reuters called into question Israel’s account of the affair of the Klos-C weapons shipment. Not a single source was quoted by name either.

In response to Reuters, I raised a list of questions readers should ask when they come across anonymous sources.

  1. Who is the source?
  2. Is he really in a position to know what he claims? Has the reporter provided enough background info about the source to help us make our own judgment?
  3. Why can’t he be identified for the story? Are readers given a plausible explanation?
  4. What are the source’s possible motives for speaking to the reporter?
  5. Is he fudging anything?
  6. Could the info have been obtained on the record from somewhere else?

The ethics get even murkier when these anonymous sources move from objective info to interpretation and analysis.

Anonymous internet trolls are bad enough.

News reports and op-eds contribute a lot to the public discourse, but I expected better from the WSJ.

Image: CC BY-NC-ND Scott Beale / Laughing Squid (via flickr)

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