In a recent article, British author and journalist Heather Brooke bemoans the increasingly common journalistic practice of granting anonymity to official spokespeople who use it to ensure deniability and avoid personal accountability for their comments to the press. Other writers, including Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, have written extensively about this insidious practice and its deleterious effects on journalism and public accountability for high-ranking officials. Granting blanket anonymity to official spokespeople with little or no justification has become so pervasive in journalism that many journalists simply do not understand why it is a problem, or even what constitutes anonymity for a source.
In January I had a brief email exchange with Al Jazeera Middle East correspondent David Poort over an article he wrote entitled “Qatar’s Emir Suggests Sending Troops to Syria“. In the article, David quoted a single anonymous “senior US official” claiming that Iran was supporting the Assad regime in its crackdown on protestors. The following are my emails to David and his response:
I am a frequent reader of Al Jazeera news articles and generally admire the quality of journalism displayed. However, this article fails to meet the high journalistic standard I have come to associate with Al Jazeera news. The claim that Iran is aiding the Assad government in its crackdown on protesters relies entirely on quotes from a single anonymous “senior US official.” It is never stated why this official requires anonymity and no empirical evidence supporting the claim is presented.
Dear Mr Moore,
Thank you for your feedback.
I agree with the objection you raise against using a statement that comes from an anonymous official. However, I decided to add this line, as it was given to Al Jazeera directly via our Washington bureau. We therefore know the identity of this source.
I’m sure you do know the identity of the official you quoted, but the reading public does not and this official’s name is not in the public record, therefore he/she cannot be held accountable for the statements made. This is the problem with granting anonymity to officials when they make such significant claims. You could at least include some justification for granting this official anonymity. Does Al Jazeera have an editorial policy on this?
David did not respond to my reply.
It is simply astonishing that an accomplished journalist working for a prominent news organization could think that because he, or his editors, knows the identity of a source, that source is therefore not “anonymous” if his/her name is not stated in an article in which he/she is quoted. As if anonymity for sources refers to keeping their identity secret from the journalist quoting them and not the reading public. How a journalist can quote someone without knowing their identity in the first place is a mystery to me.
The inability of journalists to even understand what it means to grant anonymity to official spokespeople, never mind why it is so potentially harmful, is a testament to the pervasiveness and creeping institutionalization of this practice. If the journalism profession is to maintain any shred of the ethical standards it constantly espouses and that make it an indispensable public service, it must address this insidious trend.