Even if the life of your source is in danger, journalists must never use anonymous sources, Neil Reynolds told the audience at the 9th Annual Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism at St. Thomas University.
Neil Reynolds took an unpopular view in the journalism world and called for a ban on anonymous sources Thursday in Thomas University’s packed Kinsella Auditorium. Reynolds’ topic: “The Last Commandment: Thou Shall Not Beguile.”
The Supreme Court of Canada now agrees with Reynolds that journalists cannot promise anonymity to sources. Reynolds, a former editor in chief of the Ottawa Citizen and The Vancouver Sun, said that a source that is not willing to go on record is not trustworthy. A story is not worth telling unless someone is willing to put their name behind it. Though many newspapers anonymous sources, Reynolds claims, “Anonymity is a lethal kind of cowardice, highly contagious”.
There are examples of this lethal cowardice. In May of 2005, Newsweek magazine published a story on the improper treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, including one incident where a Koran was flushed down the toilet. The breaking of this news sparked riots in Afghanistan and other countries eventually killing 15 people. Newsweek’s source was a confidential “senior US government official” who later claimed not to know if the allegations were true or false. Reynolds commented to say, “When anonymous sources err, newspapers err. When anonymous sources lie, newspapers lie.”
There are more cases where the use of anonymous sources had a dramatic impact. In 1891, Globe and Mail reporter John Willison, prevented defamatory information from being published about his friend and anonymous source, Wilfred Laurier. Laurier went on to win the race for leader of the liberal party and later became the prime minister. The direction of history could have been altered had this information been exposed.
According to Reynolds, we can survive in a journalistic world without anonymous sources. He claims that even without Woodward and Bernstein’s anonymous source, Deep Throat, Nixon and the Watergate scandal would have been exposed. The story was originally broken by a police reporter without confidential tip offs and a subcommittee was already investigating Nixon. Though Deep Throat is the figure widely credited with bringing down Nixon, there were other forces at work, claimed Reynolds.
The role of the journalist is not to cover up the mistakes and identities of their sources. The journalistic mission is to strive to make the world a better place by reporting what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s broken, who needs to fix it and at what cost. Journalists must publish fact over fiction, and you cannot guarantee fact with an anonymous source. In a field where all of your mistakes are on record and published, journalists cannot afford to risk it all.
As Neil Reynolds said, “Great journalists require great courage”.