Behind The Bruin: What goes into deciding to use anonymous sources, why they can be important
(Aileen Nguyen/Graphics editor)
July 23, 2019 11:12 a.m.
The Daily Bruin doesn’t write itself. Behind every copy placed on newsstands and every story published online, lies the journalistic process of hundreds of hard-working contributors, staffers and editors. Every day, important decisions are made to determine what is reported, how the reporting happens and in what ways we can best serve our readers. This is Behind The Bruin.
As a first look into the process of producing content at The Bruin, Editor-in-chief Angie Forburger details the use of anonymous sources and deciding when and how to use them.
One of the first things a journalist learns is the power of sourcing.
Journalism is an outlet for writers to become storytellers and provide their readers with insight into an individual, issue, event or burning question plaguing society. Knowing how to write is key for a journalist. But knowing how to report – that is when good journalists become great.
It’s the duty of a journalist to openly and honestly share the truth in their reporting, and this means that sources are informed that their words will be shared and that their identities will be public. There are cases, however, when what’s said is so poignant to the source themselves that they would prefer to speak anonymously.
The question of anonymous sources – whether to allow them, when to use them and if stories can be told with them alone – has been raised at one point or another within every publication.
The Washington Post tackled this question in 1974 when it reported on one of the biggest scandals involving a presidential administration: Watergate. The Post gathered key details about then-President Richard Nixon’s abuse of power from an anonymous source who it named “Deep Throat” – details it wouldn’t have been able to obtain otherwise.
Most news organizations, such as the Daily Bruin, avoid anonymous sourcing whenever possible, as not releasing the names of sources diminishes the credibility of the story and hinders the publication’s transparency to its readers.
But sometimes there is room for an exception.
The Bruin grants sources anonymity on a case-by-case basis, which is my job as editor in chief. I make the call on whether to allow an anonymous source for a story – I ask myself whether a story would be incomplete without the inclusion of that source.
I look at the positives of anonymous sourcing in two ways. The first is through the eyes of the reader – allowing him or her to get a perspective they may have not been able to obtain otherwise.
The second is through the eyes of the source.
If it weren’t for anonymity, many sources would not feel comfortable or safe sharing their story, whether they’re providing an insider perspective or recounting a personal experience. I want to give people that ability – if the severity of the situation warrants it, that is.
News organizations have a duty to serve their readers, which is why openness and the inclusion of detail is so important.
There is no set of criteria in which I allow anonymous sourcing. It varies depending on the content of the story, the time peg and the people involved.
The most recent use of an anonymous source in The Bruin was the story involving the removal of UCLA’s Spirit Squad director. A current member of the UCLA dance team was willing to share her experience in connection to the situation – but only anonymously.
In large part, the Spirit Squad represents the UCLA community. It stands at sporting events with UCLA written across its uniforms, cheering on behalf of every Bruin fan.
But more than being a member of the Spirit Squad, each and every person on the team is a fellow student. And I wanted to give this student the opportunity to share her story on our platform – in a way she was comfortable with.
The Spirit Squad story would have been incomplete without the personal recount from the dance team member. It wouldn’t have even been a story, as the Spirit Squad member provided the unique perspective of being at the show and experiencing the accusation firsthand.
Without her words, our publication could not have shared such intimate details with our readers. That is why anonymous sourcing is important and why The Bruin, when it’s deemed necessary, allows it.