If you pay attention to the almost-daily uproar over something President Donald Trump has done or said or tweeted, you probably know about The Atlantic story.
Or at the very least, you know that some magazine alleged, based on unnamed sources, that Trump made disparaging remarks about certain U.S. military personnel who died in combat.
Heroes, most of us would call them. “Losers,” Trump allegedly said.
Despicable as it would be, the “losers” comment would not be inconsistent with Donald Trump’s rhetoric. He likes that word, “loser,” and uses it generously. It’s pretty much what he called the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam vet and combat pilot who was shot down over Hanoi while on a bombing mission and survived torture and 5 1/2 years of captivity by the North Vietnamese.
Hero, most of us would call him. “Loser,” to Trump. Or, as the president said a few years back: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Like most things centered on Donald Trump, the recent story in The Atlantic caused an uproar. It also focused attention on “anonymous sources” and whether they can be believed and should be used in news stories.
I don’t know what Donald Trump did or didn’t say about the military dead in this case. I do know a bit about anonymous sources, having relied on them throughout my 40 plus years in journalism.
First, “anonymous” sources are almost never anonymous. They’re simply unnamed. They’re almost always known by the reporter who talks to them, and probably known quite well.
The reporter must know them well in order to rely on them for solid information.
My use of unnamed sources over the years was mostly limited to using their tips and background information to develop stories that would end up with named sources and/or documents that typically confirmed what the unnamed source initially offered in the tip.
In unusual cases, I used an unnamed source or sources in a published story. But first I had to explain and justify that use to my editors. And they had to give their permission. That’s the way it was with most reporters and news outlets I’ve known. It didn’t happen much.
Over the years, I had some really good unnamed sources. I trusted them. They were almost always right, in many cases down to fine details. They led me to many good stories.
I don’t know anything about the policies at The Atlantic or the four unnamed sources who made the allegations against the president. But based on my experience in journalism, I assume they are real people in real positions to know.
Make up sources as a journalist and you’re going to get caught, and probably pretty quickly. Write stories based on sources who deal in fiction and you’ll soon get caught, too. Either is a pretty good way to ruin a journalism career and damage a news outlet.
It’s true that writing stories based only on unnamed sources is not the best option. Sometimes, it might be the only option, however, if essential information is to be revealed and other sources are either too loyal or too intimidated to go on the record.
It’s better in most cases to use “unnamed sources” to help you find other sources and documents you can use on the record. It’s a lot better.
That’s what reporters want to do, when possible. Walter Cronkite said almost 40 years ago that anonymous sources should be “very much restricted,” and only used with the approval of “the board of managers, directors or the editorial board …” Cronkite said it would have to be “the most extraordinary circumstance to permit an anonymous source.”
Cronkite isn’t around to engage in the conversation today. But if he were, I suspect he would agree that many of the circumstances surrounding Donald Trump and his presidency are extraordinary.
Love him or hate him, you have to admit that.
Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com.
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