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Editorial: What is the value of an anonymous source?

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, September 20, 2018 6:48 p.m.
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In this Sept. 6, 2018, file photo, after more than an hour of delay over procedural questions, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh waits to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the third day of his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers has come forward to The Washington Post. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

I started writing this as a critique about anonymous sources. But somewhere along the way, that changed a little.

It changed because of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who stepped out from behind her anonymous mask as the grown-up accuser who said Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was a high school girl at a party.

This is not about what she said. This is about how she said it.

The thing is, most journalists are skittish about anonymous sources. They make us nervous. We like facts and we like proof, and we like to be able to demonstrate where we got it. We love attribution. We adore documentation.

We often walk away from a story because someone isn’t willing to stand behind a claim enough to attach a name to what they are saying. That is not always the case. As with all things, there are exceptions.

We know that sometimes the consequences are too large to overlook, like when someone’s very life could be at risk. We know that sometimes the information is important enough to make anonymity acceptable. There is also an allowance made for victims — alleged or otherwise — of sexual assault or rape.

Ford’s experience shows why exceptions like those exist. Remove the politics from the situation and boil it down to the kind of case journalists see regularly: a woman tells an authority figure about her allegations of assault and becomes drawn into a governmental meat grinder.

Ford’s lawyer says that since the California college professor’s name became known, she has faced death threats and was forced to flee her home.

Journalists still like to keep anonymous sources rare, but those situations can’t always occur. Ford spoke to the Washington Post openly. Like Anita Hill, she is expected to publicly face a Senate committee hearing where she will tell a story that could have broad consequences for herself, Kavanaugh and the country.

Whether you believe her or not, whether you support her or not, you have to respect one thing about what she has done. She didn’t just throw this rock from the shadows. As the deeply entrenched party warfare rages on across the political landscape, Ford’s actions are truly rare.

We do not know who wrote the New York Times’ anonymous op-ed that paints a picture of White House staffers working against the president who hired them to work toward his goals. We do not know exactly who Bob Woodward spoke to for his new book about the Trump administration. We don’t know where a lot of the whispers come from.

Ford unmasked herself, while the various “unnamed sources” within the White House remain in hiding.

Every day journalists are being challenged by accusations of fake news. We oppose those, and push forward in pursuit of more news, stronger news, more transparency from government. It would help if there were more transparency on the journalism side, too.

But more than anything, people who believe they have an important truth to tell have to be willing to stand by that truth and put a name to it because the easiest way to dismiss a story you don’t like is to call it a lie. The easiest way to call it a lie is to say “anonymous” is code for “nonexistent.”

Lori Falce is the Tribune-Review’s Community Engagement Editor.

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