There are few things more frustrating for a journalist than to complete an interview and then be told by the interviewee that he or she doesn’t want his or her name to appear in the paper.
It’s frustrating because, except under very rare circumstances, reputable media outlets don’t publish comments or accusations without a name to go with it.
But why does it matter?
People need to be held accountable for what they say. For some, like politicians and public officials, that’s obvious, but it’s just as important for those who normally live outside the public eye.
For one, it keeps them honest. Under the cloak of anonymity people are tempted to massage the truth, not necessarily for any evil purpose, although that does occur, but often to strengthen the underlying point they’re trying to make. If that same person knew that their name and reputation was going to be tied to their statement, they’re less tempted to play fast and loose with the truth because they know their family, friends and colleagues will be reading.
Second, it allows the reader to judge the credibility of the person speaking. Journalists do their best to give readers as much relevant biographical information as possible, but sometimes certain connections are not apparent when doing an interview. However, members of the public will know the person and, by including his or her name, can judge their credibility.
Third, it gives the newspaper credibility by proving the readers that the reporters did go out and talk to those either impacted by, or with knowledge of the story they are writing about. It also shows that this is a true sentiment within the community and not just the newspaper’s opinion.
There are times when newspapers do use unnamed sources, but they are limited to when there is a real and legitimate concern about a source’s safety and the news value of what they have to say outweighs the concerns over not naming them. If that extraordinary step is taken, the editors must make every effort to ensure that the person is honest and credible before publishing what they have to say.
Most of the time those worries over safety are unfounded, but newspapers ought not to play fast and loose with sources’ concerns. Unfortunately, that often means not writing stories that would be in the public interest.
The irony of discussing the need for newspapers to use names in what is normally an unsigned editorial is not lost on its writer. While an editorial is designed to represent the opinion of the newspaper, rather than a particular writer, and to engender discussion among readers, leaving it unsigned this week would greatly undermine its central point.
After all, if the newspaper is looking for sources to stand by their opinions, shouldn’t it do the same thing?