Wherever you position yourself on the political spectrum, yesterday’s anonymous New York Times opinion piece, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” was bombshell news. I think a good deal of the shock around the essay has more to do with how it came to be published than it does with the content itself. The Times identifies the author as a “senior official in the Trump administration,” and while journalists have a long and storied history of using anonymous sources in their reporting, anonymity is rarely given to opinion writers. When you read the piece, as you no doubt have by now, you either had your worst fears about President Trump confirmed by a courageous whistleblower or you were appalled by the insolence of a disgruntled employee, too afraid to attach his or her name to the accusations. Maybe you even dismissed the source out of hand as a liar who falsified events and exaggerated access to the president. I’m not here to moderate that debate, but I do see the Times piece as a great conversation starter with students about the risks and rewards of anonymous sourcing in journalism.
After reading the Times Op-Ed in class, ask students to research journalistic standards and how they relate to anonymous sourcing. The Society of Professional Journalists, one of the oldest professional organizations for reporters in the United States, has an excellent Code of Ethics page that is worth reading in its entirety (students can use it as a rubric for any reporting you want to them to evaluate), but you can also skip to their “Anoymous Sources” position paper, where said sources are described as “sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.”
Compare the Society of Professional Journalists’ position to the entry in NPR’s Ethics Handbook explaining why “unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault).”
You can also refer students to the 1991 decision in Cohen v. Cowles Media Company, where the Supreme Court ruled that Minnesota newspapers were liable for damages incurred by an anonymous source who lost his job after his identity was revealed. Or ask them to read this 2005 New York Times editorial about the legal consequences for Judith Miller, one of the Times’ own, who refused to name her sources to a grand jury. And of course no discussion of the history of anonymous sourcing would be complete without discussing Deep Throat’s role in the Washington Post reporting that ultimately brought the Nixon administration down in 1974.
These articles bring out different facets of this complicated issue around sorucing, and while you won’t have time to read all of them together in class, they could make for a good jigsaw reading session before bringing the class back together to discuss the following questions:
- Why do journalists sometimes have to rely on information provided by anonymous sources?
- Why are news organizations reluctant to use anonymous sources?
- What are the potential risks or drawbacks for journalists or news organizations who use anonymous sources?
- What is the difference between a news report and an opinion piece? Is there a difference between using an anonymous source for news reporting versus publishing an anonymous opinion piece?
- If a news organization plans to cite an anonymous source, what actions can they take to earn or maintain their audience’s trust as it relates to the source?
Whether or not you trust that the New York Times found a credible source to shed light on President Trump’s behavior in the White House, whether or not you believe this anonymous Op-Ed should have been published in the first place, the piece provides educators with a valuable opportunity to investigate this problematic yet necessary convention of journalism.