Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Condition of Anonymity

The Condition of Anonymity is a routine part of present day political and investigative reporting. Its mention implies that the information given by an anonymous source is true, or at least more authoritative than, information freely given and admitted to. Reporters insist that they must offer their sources anonymity so that those sources will be willing to provide information, usually concerning things they are not supposed to discuss.

I believe the Condition of Anonymity is a serious mistake.

Historian and commentator Victor Davis Hanson, among many others, has expressed concern about the use of unnamed or anonymous sources in modern political and historical writing. His point is a good one: how can a future historian check the facts provided by an anonymous source? And taking the concern a bit farther: what is the motivation of an anonymous source? Altruism? Revenge? Spite? Righteous Anger? The motiviation of the source is key to understanding the meaning of the information provided...but an anonymous, unnamed source doesn't allow us that critical context. We can't evaluate his or her information.

Many news stories contain statements which begin with the words, "Speaking on condition of anonymity because...". Consider some of the reasons which often appear after the word because:

"...he/she is not authorized to speak on the issue."

"...the information is classified."

" was a private meeting."

Each of these three becauses has one thing in common: the violation of a trust. The owner of this information decided that this individual was sufficiently trustworthy to be allowed access to it. Someone decided that this individual had sufficient integrity to protect the information to which he or she was allowed access.

And the individual betrayed this trust by giving the information to someone not authorized to have it.

So I see two problems with the Condition of Anonymity: the lack of ability to gauge the motivation of the source; and the lack of integrity shown by the anonymous source's willingness to betray a trust.

Many of you who read this will disagree. You will point out that anonymous whistleblowers are often the only source of information on crimes that would otherwise go unreported and unpunished. I agree. I would argue, though, that there's a difference between the individual who witnesses a crime and reports this information to the authorities, and an individual who disagrees with a policy and deliberately leaks inside information in an effort to undermine it.

The Condition of Anonymity can be a shield for the hero who takes a stand against crime and injustice, or it can be a mask to hide the motivations of a vengeful employee. Our problem is that we can't judge the truth if the individual refuses to stand behind it.

And someday, historians will be unable to understand what happened any better than we can today.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


No comments: