How should local news organizations react when ESPN reports using anonymous sources?

Posted: 4:46 PM, Jan 03, 2018
Updated: 2018-01-03 21:46:20Z

The tweet popped up at 10:13 a.m. on Dec. 17.

ESPN NFL writer Adam Schefter reported Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was planning to leave the team.

Schefter’s tweet cited “league sources.”



Immediately, local news organizations -- including WCPO -- jumped to retweet Schefter’s tweet and publish our own stories to relay the report that Lewis was leaving.

My phone pinged with breaking news alerts from every media organization in town.

All of the local media began working on stories about Lewis leaving.

The only problem is: Lewis didn’t leave.

Later in the day, Lewis told reporters in his postgame news conference that nothing had been decided.

Still, most media just figured Lewis was delaying the announcement until after the season.

That wasn’t the case. On Tuesday, the Bengals announced Lewis would be back for two more seasons.

We all got it wrong.

All because one respected, national reporter -- citing anonymous sources -- got it wrong.

The purpose of this piece isn’t to make excuses. We made a mistake, and we own up to it.

Instead, we want your feedback -- because this is a tricky area and a tricky time to be a journalist.

We have strict anonymous source policies here at WCPO, including the following:

  • A senior news leader must approve the use of any anonymous source and both the reporter and news leader must know who the person is.
  • The information from an anonymous source must be crucial to advancing the story. An anonymous source must be used only to deliver substantive, first-hand, factual information that cannot be obtained by any other means.
  • The source must have reason to fear harm if his or her name is used.

But what do we do when another reputable news organization reports something relevant to all of you that uses anonymous sources?

We normally have no idea who these sources are or how the reporter obtained his or her information. We might not be able to confirm the story independently -- or not for days.

Aside from the decision itself, it becomes news that ESPN is reporting that Marvin Lewis is leaving.

Do we ignore what ESPN is reporting even though a huge group of people in Cincinnati is talking about it?

Or did we handle this correctly by reporting what ESPN is reporting and letting all of you decide whether to trust Schefter or not?

This isn’t an isolated incident.

While many news organizations, like WCPO, are working hard to build trust, I see more and more national news organizations using anonymous sources. Especially when it comes to sports and politics.

So what do you think? Should we publish and air stories from other respected news organizations citing anonymous sources?

As always, we welcome your feedback.

Mike Canan is editor of Contact him at Follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @Mike_Canan.