A book about whether journalists should grant anonymity to sources might seem relevant only to journalists themselves. But Matt Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at St. Louis University, makes a good case that all citizens who depend on journalists for information should care about the use of anonymous sources.
Carlson relies on five recent controversies to give a real-world cast to a sometimes ivory tower debate. Carlson has little experience as a journalist. He does, however, understand journalists well, especially investigative journalists and those who cover electoral politics as horse races.
It is in those realms that reporters tend to rely most heavily on anonymous sources. Some of those sources might care about the public good; others hide behind anonymity to spread lies and launch test balloons without being held accountable.
The five case studies include New York Times and Washington Post coverage about claims of weapons of mass destruction in the invasion of Iraq; CBS News' coverage of George W. Bush's military service record; Newsweek magazine's coverage of how U.S. soldiers wielded the Koran to harshly interrogate suspected terrorists; the unmasking of a famous anonymous source known as Deep Throat to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they disclosed scandal within President Richard Nixon's White House; and the potentially life threatening outing of Valerie Plame as a U.S. spy.
Four of the cases unfolded within post-9/11 sensitivity about terrorists and tense relations between journalists and Bush's administration. Carlson notes that the debate over using anonymous sources goes back centuries, but the debate took on added freight during the first decade of this century.
Given that much of Carlson's study revolves around the issue of transparency, I should disclose that I have been deeply involved in the debate about anonymous sourcing since beginning my investigative reporting career in 1969. I stopped using anonymous sources decades ago, while understanding that most journalists would not give them up.
Although "On the Condition of Anonymity" is loaded with academic jargon — Carlson is, after all, a scholar writing for an academic publisher — it should be comprehensible to readers smart enough to understand that the reliability of journalism frames their world view. Anonymity, he writes, "provides undoubtedly useful information informing the watchdog function of the press while simultaneously undermining this function through its gratuitous application."
Carlson offers sensible prescriptions for less reliance on anonymous sources and for more transparency when they are relied upon by journalists. His book injects calm reason and scholarly rigor into a debate that often arouses passions.
Steve Weinberg is a former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School.
'On the Condition of Anonymity: Unnamed Sources and the Battle for Journalism'
By Matt Carlson
University of Illinois Press, 216 pages, $45