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When working with journalistic sources who, fearing for their own safety, must not be identified, how can one cite them in a way that retains credibility?

Are there technical solutions to this, perhaps some kind of anonymous key-based trust system? Or some older techniques that journalists have used in the past?

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  • By “cite” do you mean how to refer to them in a story without identifying them, or are you asking about how you can verify an anonymous source’s information? – Richard Cosgrove Dec 22 '20 at 12:49
  • This is an aside, but this is good overview of when you should and should not use anonymous sources. And it has links to guidelines used by various reputable news gathering organisations: ijnet.org/en/resource/… – Richard Cosgrove Dec 22 '20 at 12:53
  • @RichardCosgrove I guess both? I'm thinking about sources who blow a whistle in a way that might risk their job if they use their real name. How can one write a credible story that makes use of their information without identifying them? – Andreas Jansson Dec 22 '20 at 22:36
  • Thanks. I asked because giving a source a “name” in a story is a separate matter to how you can verify what a source is telling you. I suggest you edit your question to make it clearer. (BTW - some countries have whistleblowing laws that make it illegal to fire a whistleblower, if they meet certain requirements.) – Richard Cosgrove Dec 23 '20 at 12:51
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The classic method is to have a policy of the news organization that requires more than one employee to talk to the source, including at least one supervisory employee (editor), and also that no statement be reported unless it was confirmed by more than one source. That is how most of the Watergate reporting by the Washington Post and other papers was handled, for example.

A key-based system would allow one to be sure that different documents were coming from the same source, but gives no reason to trust that source. it could confirm that the source is the same one that one or more trusted people have approved, but that is just a crypto variety of "a trusted reporter thinks the source is trustworthy". used long before such crypto tools were available.

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When it comes to naming an anonymous source, the AP Stylebook’s rule is to be as descriptive as possible, without being specific.

The reporter must be as descriptive as possible when providing attribution to establish the credibility of the source, yet mindful of the source’s safety or privacy concerns.

No: According to the source …

Yes: According to top U.S. Department of State officials …

It is also important to clarify why the source wanted to remain anonymous.  For example, a journalist could explain that the company the source works for does not allow officials to speak with reporters, or that a major announcement is going to be made via press release.

Source: BKA Content

A reporter has to strike a balance between giving the reader enough information that the source is credible, but not so much that the source can be identified - especially by “those in the know” (eg, investigators, their work colleagues, family).

I think it’s good practice to negotiate with the source about how they want to be referred to in a story and stick to that. But also only quote an anonymous source if there is no other option, and their information can be confirmed by another source that can go on the record.

The reporter should also be careful that quotes from the anonymous source or information they supply that is published won’t lead back to them. (Even saying where the reporter met the source could do this.)

This doesn’t apply to sources giving information as “deep background”. In those cases, the source’s information cannot be published, they cannot be quoted - directly or indirectly - nor identified in any way. All their information has to be sourced and confirmed from multiple other on the record sources before being published. The most famous of these was Watergate’s “Deep Throat”.

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