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COLUMN: Why (and when) WCPO chooses to use anonymous sources

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-28 14:48:58-05

One of our top priorities at WCPO 9 News is to actively work to build trust with you, our audience.

We recognize that many people have concerns about the media, and there’s a lot of information out there. It can be hard to know who or what to trust.

That’s even harder when journalists use anonymous sources. If you don’t know who the source is, how do you know whether to believe that information?

I understand that concern completely.

To be honest, I don’t like to see stories with anonymous sources. Those sources are used frequently in sports and political stories, especially at the national level.

Journalists who want to use an anonymous source must weigh the information the source can provide against the risk — both of the information being inaccurate and the general loss of trust incurred by using an anonymous source.

But there are some stories journalists simply would not be able to get without using anonymous sources.

That happened with our newsroom this week. On Tuesday, we were the first news organization to bring you the story that the FBI had arrested Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard. The only way we could report this information was by keeping our sources anonymous. The sources were not allowed to comment to the media on this case.

We felt confident in our sources. We knew the information was accurate.

We also felt like reporting on a City Council member being arrested and accused of attempting to sell a vote was in the public’s interest — something we needed to tell our audience as quickly as possible.

This was not a decision we took lightly. Our news managers spent quite a bit of time discussing this decision.

We have a strict policy in our newsroom when it comes to anonymous sources. All anonymous sources must be approved by a manager. In practice, nearly all uses of anonymous sources are approved by me personally.

As I mentioned, I do not like to use anonymous sources. I push our team for alternatives, and I say “no” more often than some members of our team probably would like.

We grant use of anonymous sources only when the information those sources can share cannot be obtained any other way and the information is vital to the public good. The source also must be at risk if we used that source's name. The source could be in physical danger or could lose his or her job or face other repercussions. We might make an exception if naming the source might reveal the identity of a sexual assault victim.

We never use anonymous sources for statements of opinion, only for facts.

And we nearly always require some sort of corroboration. In the Dennard case, we had two independent sources confirming the same information. Later in the week, we reported that attorney Tom Gabelman was the FBI informant in the Dennard case. In that instance, we had nine different sources from a variety of areas all confirming that Gabelman was the source identified in documents as CHS.

We also disclose our policy when we use anonymous sources with language similar to this:

WCPO does not ordinarily use anonymous sources. However, WCPO staff members use anonymous sources in rare circumstances where such sources are the only way to obtain information vital to the public good. WCPO staff members have vetted these sources and believe the information they provide to be accurate and in good faith.

I know for some people we should never use anonymous sources. I wish we could always avoid them. But sometimes using an unnamed source is essential to sharing important information with all of you.

And, for the record, in both instances this week where we used anonymous sources as the story unfolded, our reporting was proven to be 100% accurate.

Mike Canan is the Senior Director of Local Media Content at WCPO 9. Contact him at mike.canan@wcpo.com. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @Mike_Canan.