Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has a nice piece on the ridiculousness of anonymous source identifiers in the news–with a little input from me. The origins of such “explanations” of why anonymity was granted began appearing really after the wake of the bad information in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq War. The idea was to let readers in a bit more as to why such decisions were made. However well-intentioned, the limits are obvious; you can’t grant anonymity and provide enough clues to place a name with a quote. Still, there could be some usefulness on shedding a little light. However, as Farhi humorously illustrates with true examples, the explanations end up sounding, well, dumb. And that is at best. At worst, these identifiers are misleading. I’ve discussed this in my book, but it is always tricky. Journalists need, in some instances, to be able to use anonymous sources, leaving us readers out in the dark. But they are also overused or used in ways far from the normative base of providing the public with information it needs to know. I am glad to see Farhi take up the issue, and I hope others follow as well.

About Matt Carlson

Associate Professor of Communication Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication University of Minnesota
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