As small-town journalists, we are surrounded by the swirl of rumors and “word on the street” about the news stories we cover.
Most of these rumors are easily confirmed or debunked by a phone call, internet search or email. On occasion, however, a source comes forward to provide information on the condition of anonymity and in most cases, their identity is immaterial to the records they provide, such as emails, documents, text messages, recordings or internal memos, and their name remains secret.
While such leaks are rare, especially in a town not known for keeping its secrets secret, they have come up now and again and lead to stories exposing unethical, nefarious or even criminal behavior.
Much more common are anonymous letters dropped off at our newsroom alleging criminal behavior by news subjects or elected officials. These letters are often devoid of concrete details, dates, locations or names and instead encourage us to “find the truth” but without providing any real leads for us to investigate other than vague allegations.
The truly annoying part is most of these letters are unsigned with no return address.
With no concrete facts and no way to contact the individual who sent them, we can’t investigate nor can we follow-up with the “source.” If we had a name, we could contact the author and determine whether their facts are valid or just rumor, but without such, these ambiguous letters usually wind up in our recycling bin, chalked up to “plausible but unsubstantiated rumor.”
Contrary to perception, an “anonymous” source is not unknown to the journalists who rely on them.
When Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began their investigation of the 1972 Watergate break-in that eventually lead to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon, they had little information to report other than court proceedings and financial records.
However, their stories contained details of the ongoing FBI investigations that could only have come from an inside source they dubbed “Deep Throat” in their 1974 book “All the President’s Men.”
Bernstein and Woodward — and later Executive Editor Ben Bradlee — knew the identity of their source, later revealed to be then-FBI Associate Director Mark Felt.
Felt provided the Post reporters with leads and details, but it was the fact that he was in the position he held that engendered trust in what he provided. Had he anonymously delivered documents, Bernstein and Woodward likely would have doubted the authenticity, no matter how valid they appeared.
Who delivers records to reporters is less important that what they contain, and sources are more than welcome to ask to speak confidentially and off-the-record if they can back up claims with facts and documents
The First Amendment provides protection to the press and reporters have gone to jail rather than reveal the names of sources even when ordered to by judges. The purpose of publishing stories about corruption, criminal behavior and illegal activity is to expose the truth — who provides the evidence is less important than the evidence itself.