Woody: ‘Anonymous Sources’ Can Spell Trouble
Larry Woody | Senior Writer
Kevin Harvick touched on one of the most tickling questions in journalism last week when he took the media to task for using an anonymous source in a story about a reputed team rift.
The story quoted an unnamed source as saying “Kevin has burned all his bridges” at Richard Childress Racing.
Harvick was furious.
“If you’re going to quote a source, quote their name,” he said. “Otherwise, if they’re too chicken to give you their name, don’t put their quote in the paper. It’s that simple.”
Actually, Kevin, it’s NOT that simple.
Sometimes a credible, reliable source will agree to speak to a reporter only if his or her anonymity is guaranteed. They fear repercussions if their identity is revealed, and often those fears are warranted.
Just because a source doesn’t want to be identified doesn’t mean the information he provides is not accurate. (Notice that Kevin didn’t deny the report; he just blasted the manner in which it was revealed.)
But the media has to tread carefully when it wades into this kind of water. Sometimes an anonymous source wants to remain secret because he has a personal agenda and is using the media to further it. Or because he knows the information may not be entirely accurate and doesn’t want to be held accountable.
My former newspaper had a strict policy against using an anonymous source in a news story except in rare instances – and then only after the information had been vetted through a chain of editors.
The policy cost me some scoops over the years when my sources declined to talk on the record. I once had to sit on a major coaching change, only to see a local TV station break the story a day later – quoting the same “anonymous source” that I wasn’t allowed to use.
In racing, such territory can be especially treacherous. There are close-knit driver and team allegiances – and, conversely, rivalries and personal feuds. There can also be sponsor repercussions; sponsors don’t like to learn about a team problem in the newspaper, nor does the team owner.
Usually someone with a team connection is taking a chance by talking to a reporter about a controversial subject.
For example, whoever provided the “bridge-burning” quote about Harvick and RCR is apparently an insider – and he likely won’t be working there any more if his identity is learned.
In a perfect world I would agree with Kevin – if a source isn’t willing to make his identity known and publicly stand by what he says, then the information he provides becomes suspect. But the world’s not perfect, and it doesn’t always work that way in journalism, especially with the advent of today’s no-rules internet.
The true test will be to see if the story turns out to be correct. Will more stirring victories like the one Sunday at Talladega sooth over any rift and pave the way for a continued working relationship between Harvick and RCR? Or will the anonymous source prove correct, and the bridges turn out to indeed be irreparably torched?
– Larry Woody can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments