By Gregg McLachlan
A reporter covers a community festival. The assignment: Write a human interest story about the local event. When the copy is filed there's a puzzling paragraph:
"This festival is awesome. The floats, the people and the food are great. I'm glad I brought my family," said the man who asked to remain anonymous.
Huh? The guy loves the festival. In fact, he raves about it. But he wants to remain anonymous?
With a little (and I do mean little) leg work, a newspaper reporter should be able to get many other people at a community festival to speak on the record about such an event. Imagine if you're a television news reporter. Would you bother interviewing someone about a local festival if the person wouldn't give his/her name? Probably not. The chances of it getting on air as an "anonymous festival goer" are virtually nil.
We need to reserve anonymity for occasions when it's really necessary. Which, by the way, is sparingly.
A simple checklist can help guide reporters on the use of anonymous sources:
1. Why does the person need anonymity? Is there an acceptable reason? Perhaps it's an issue that's sensitive (ie. whistleblower, police investigation, or for legal reasons such as a children's aid society case).
2. Is the person using anonymity to attack someone? It's easy for individuals to launch attacks under the disguise of anonymity. Or is the person seeking anonymity for privacy reasons or personal safety? It is vital to know why someone wants to remain anonymous. What's the motive?
3. Have you talked it over with your supervisor? Before you make any promises that someone can remain anonymous, talk it over with your supervisor to get his/her OK. Your supervisor may see the situation in a different light.
4. Is the person giving me information that I can get somewhere else? If you can get the same information from someone else who will go on the record, do it.
5. Verify. Verify. Verify. Don't risk having an anonymous source sink your credibility and accuracy. Remember: Your byline is not anonymous. Verify the accuracy of the person's information.