In the dark: Use of an anonymous source at a small daily newspaper
by Arik Forsman
Charles Ramsey had a choice to make.
Ramsey, the regional editor for the Mesabi Daily News, a small daily in northeastern Minnesota, was putting together an article on a contract dispute between local mine workers, the local unions that represented two Iron Range taconite mines, and the company that managed both locations, Cleveland Cliffs.
Although the current contract between the union and the company called for the implementation of 12-hour shifts, which is something some workers in Ramsey’s original article are quoted on as being in favor of, nothing had been changed to start the process.
Ramsey had a source from Hibbing Taconite, one of the taconite mines, that was ready to validate some information Ramsay had received, and provide new additional information that made the story more complete.
But the information came with a price — the source’s identity. The source would only give up the information if he was granted anonymity.
�?He refused to talk with me until I agreed to do something, shall we say make an offer,�? Ramsay said.
According to a Wall Street Journal article on anonymous sources, “sources is becoming a dirty word�? in journalism. By using anonymity, journalists may provide more factual information that otherwise would go uncovered, potentially adding more truth to the story.
But using this tool can have a negative impact on a story’s credibility, as highlighted by some recent examples at various major publications. If a journalist decides against using the anonymous source, however, information that may be important to the public could go unheard for the sake of journalistic integrity.
In a recent study by the Associated Press, nearly one in four newspapers said they do not allow the use of anonymous sources at all. According to the article, nearly all of them were in small or mid-size markets.
�?If we can get another source on the record, then obviously that’s the best way to go,�? said Bill Hanna, Executive Editor of the Mesabi Daily News. “A lot of times that is how things develop.�?
Hanna said a source must have a legitimate reason to go anonymous. Smaller dailies, where journalists must intertwine with their sources, may have more issues getting sources to go on-the-record than large-market publications.
�?A lot of times in a smaller community where people know each other, some people fear retribution if their name is used,�? Hanna said. “So you weigh how important it is to know what’s going on, and then you make the decision based on the credibility of the person who you are giving anonymity to.�?
A worker from United Taconite in Eveleth, Jamie Winger, wrote a guest column that was published in the Mesabi Daily News on April 5, 2008 about the need for 12-hour shifts to be implemented, saying “It makes sense!�?
On April 13, 2008, the article by Ramsey was published, using the Winger article and other sources from the local mines. Ramsey had been working on the article previous to Winger’s column, and said Winger and another worker from United Taconite were waiting to see what response they would get from their union leaders and the company before coming forward.
�?They did come forward and basically put their names in there and situations on the line,�? Ramsey said.
“I haven’t heard of people being fired for organizing and being an activist advocate,�? he said. “They do kind of put themselves a little bit, I wouldn’t say in harm’s way, but in hassle’s way.�?
Ramsay had the two workers from United Taconite on the record. But besides those two sources, he was having trouble getting anyone to speak up.
�?I was not able to get much from other sources on the record,�? Ramsay said.
After a few weeks of trying to get a hold of union leadership in the area, he was finally able to speak with two union representatives, one at the local level and one at the district level. Both were named and quoted in the article.
But he still hadn’t spoken with anyone from Hibbing Taconite. After speaking with the eventual source he used for Hibbing Taconite, Ramsay decided the anonymity route was the way to go.
�?I did go ahead and use it, because I felt the person… that the person had credibility, and within the constraints, I thought it gave me background too,�? he said.
Hanna said the decision of whether to use an anonymous source, something only used five to 15 times a year at the paper, is based on a process between writer and editor.
“The No. 1rule is no reporter grants anonymity without talking first with the editor,�? Hanna said. “It’s not a clean-cut, black-and-white decision.�?
Could communication between writer and editor be the key for using anonymous sources effectively, without getting burned?
According to Duchesne Drew, assistant managing editor for local news at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the writer must always communicate with his editor about the anonymity process before anything can be promised to a source.
�?It requires discussion with senior editors,�? Drew said. “They have to know who the source is, why he or she is in a position to know what they say they know.�?
After the Jayson Blair mess in 2003, the New York Times created an in-house committee to assess what went wrong and how a junior reporter managed to publish so many falsities, despite having highly experienced editors. According to an article published in The Quill, the committee’s report said there was “a stunning lack of communication within the newsroom.�?
The Jack Kelley scandal, involving a USA Today reporter who was forced to resign after allegations of fabricating stories, resulted in USA Today dramatically cutting the use of the anonymous source. According to an NPR article in 2005, the use of the anonymous source at USA Today was down to an average of one article per day. That was down 75 percent from October of 2004, after the Kelley scandal surfaced.
This decline is not isolated. According to a study published in The Washington Times in 2005, the use of anonymous sources nationwide declined by one-third over the past 20 years. The decline occurred in both newspapers and television.
So if journalists are making the news more transparent by naming more sources, why does the use of anonymity continue in certain cases?
According to a statement released by the Associated Press, there are three guidelines for when the media should use anonymous sources: If the material is fact and not opinion, if there is no other way to get the information without granting anonymity, and if the source is reliable and is in a position to have accurate information.
This issue faces all newspapers, but smaller dailies may have more personal relationships to work around. Journalists must strike a balance between using the source and remaining credible, or going another route and possibly losing the story.
In Ramsay’s case, communication with his editor, credibility of the source, and the need to let the public have access to the story tipped the scales in favor of using the source in-the-dark.
�?It’s a trade-off,�? Ramsay said. “Is it good, is it not? My feeling in general was that it was worth it,�? he said.
Editor’s note: The author of this story is employed in a summer position at Hibbing Taconite.