The Seattle Times made effective use of anonymous sources when it published a story saying Brock Adams, then a U.S. senator, had sexually harassed several women over a period of 20 years. The investigation began after Kari Tupper, a congressional aide, publicly accused Adams of having drugged and molested her. Although Tupper took her story to prosecutors, no charges were brought because the federal district attorney concluded the case had no merit. The Times, however, started getting phone calls from women who reported similar experiences with Adams but did not want to be publicly identified. Eventually, the Times agreed to publish a story detailing the charges without identifying the women so long as the accusers signed affidavits and promised to come forward if Adams sued the Times for libel. Adams abandoned his re-election campaign but denied the sexual harassment charges.
Some journalists have deplored the use of anonymous sources as a threat to the independence, accuracy and credibility of the news. Benjamin Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, said, “Why, then, do we go along so complacently with withholding the identity of public officials? I’m damned if I know. I do know that by doing so, we shamelessly do other people’s bidding: We knowingly let ourselves be used. . . . In short, we demean our profession.”
Anonymity allows sources to try to influence the way journalists cover the news. In Washington, high-level government sources often demand that their briefings be on background or on deep background. The officials use these briefings to place administration policy in the best possible light. The accuracy of information from sources who demand anonymity is always open to question. If the information proves inaccurate, it is the reporter and the news organization who look foolish, not the source. A final problem with anonymous sources is that under some circumstances a promise to keep a source’s identity secret can be enforced in court. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a source whose identity is revealed after confidentiality was promised may sue for damages. The court said the law protects people who are injured when they rely on an explicit promise and that promise is broken. That law applies to everybody, the court said, including news organizations.