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Which Anonymous Sources Are Worth Paying Attention To?

So you wake up one day, get on Twitter and find everyone buzzing about some story in The New York Times or The Washington Post about some associate or friend of President Trump’s who has some connection to Russia. You read the story, but not only are the sources unnamed, they are unnamed in all kinds of different ways — an “intelligence source” in paragraph three, “administration officials” in paragraph seven, “people familiar with the investigation” in the next one and “law enforcement officials” at the end. You understand all the words on the screen, but you don’t really understand who’s telling you what or why.

In the first part of our guide to unnamed sources, we laid out some general tips for making sense of these kinds of stories. In this part, we want to get more specific, to help you to essentially decode these stories. We also want you to be able to know which stories you should rely on based on the different kinds of sourcing used.

So we’re going to divide anonymous sources into six general types and give the pros and cons of each, in terms of reliability. We ordered the types of unnamed sources, roughly speaking, from most reliable to least reliable (at least in my experience):

1. Organization sources

White House officials,” “Justice Department officials,” “Pentagon officials,” “Clinton campaign officials,” “Republican leadership aides

Why you should trust these sources: Close to 70,000 people work at the State Department, so there’s a huge number of potential “State Department officials” to be quoted anonymously. But in reality, most beat reporters aren’t talking to people up and down a department at every level. A story attributed to a large federal department and published in The Washington Post will almost certainly have been run by the department’s spokesperson, giving him or her the chance to rebut it. If a story includes a line like “State Department officials said X” but no spokesperson is directly quoted in the story, you should generally assume that this is a disclosure authorized by the top officials in that agency. Maybe the State Department wants the secretary, Rex Tillerson, and not a spokesperson to announce a policy publicly, so the members of the press team opt to confirm the story but not use their names. An unnamed source isn’t always a whistleblower or someone talking behind the boss’s back.

Be wary, however, of putting too much trust in adjectives such as “senior” or “high-ranking” when applied to a source. These are organizational sources, sure. But there is no technical definition of “senior White House official,” so this person could be press secretary Sean Spicer or Trump himself.

Why you shouldn’t trust these sources: Sometimes departments want to float ideas that a spokesperson would not want to put his or her name behind. CBS News, for example, ran a story in May in which unnamed White House officials were quoted calling the leaks about the various Russia controversies “coordinated and timed” to hurt Trump. Trump White House aides may think that is true. But suggesting that leaks and stories about Trump and Russia are somehow coordinated and timed by sources and journalists, as opposed to going through the normal process — sources giving journalists tips, reporters trying to verify them and then putting out stories after confirming the information — sounds a bit conspiratorial. Going unnamed allows these sources to bash the Russia coverage in a way that White House aides might not be comfortable doing with their names attached.

And as I mentioned in the first part of this series, outlets aimed at politicos — such as Axios and, well, Politico — frequently publish claims that the administration will do X or Y. Often, these are trial balloons — the White House or a federal agency wants to see how the press and public react to something — and they never come to pass.

2. “Familiar” people

A person familiar with person X’s thinking,” “sources familiar with person X’s plans,” “associates of person X”

Why you should trust these sources: Quotes attributed to sources “familiar with the thinking” of a person are often quite reliable.

Why? A major newspaper like The New York Times or The Washington Post is not going to suggest that a source is familiar with someone’s thinking without being pretty sure of it. This is a fairly precise term. It also puts the news organization at a clear risk, as person X can obviously deny what an article has said he or she is thinking.

Generally, these kinds of source descriptions mean that the reporter spoke either to the actual subject (meaning that “a source familiar with the thinking of Chief Justice John Roberts” is Roberts) or to a person designated by the subject to give his or her account to the reporter.

In the wake of Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, the “associates of” Comey who gave accounts of his interactions with Trump and his aides to The New York Times and other news outlets were obviously authorized by Comey and essentially telegraphing the story that he would eventually testify to publicly.

Why you shouldn’t trust these sources: By going unnamed or relying on allies, the subject of these stories (say, Comey before his testimony) is unwilling to commit publicly to whatever narrative he or she is telling. So while the broader outlines are likely correct, the narrative could be exaggerated or misleading in some ways.

Secondly, this kind of sourcing has the potential for abuse. Other reporters can call the State Department to check the veracity of a story attributed to “State Department officials.” But it was not obvious that “associates of Comey” would lead to a Columbia law professor named Daniel Richman. (Comey testified that he gave a friend one of his memos describing his interactions with Trump and that the friend, a professor at Columbia law school, read some of the details of the memo to a journalist. Comey did not name the journalist. The first story about the Comey memo was written by Michael Schmidt, a New York Times reporter who has covered Comey extensively.)

Another reporter could contact Comey to confirm this kind of story, which is something, but if Comey refused to talk, there wasn’t a clear second option.

Also, there is one person causing some specific problems with this kind of sourcing: Trump. The president seems to speak with a wide range of people, both inside and outside the White House. And many of these people then tell reporters that they talked to the president. That leaves a lot of people for journalists to credibly say are “familiar with Trump’s thinking,” but that does not necessarily mean that these sources give an accurate picture of what the president will do. The constant stories about staff shake-ups at the White House may indeed come from people who have heard Trump muse about changes that he will never actually follow through on.


3. The Law

Law enforcement officials

Why you should trust these sources: In my experience, in national news stories, “law enforcement sources” usually means representatives of the Department of Justice or FBI (technically, the FBI is part of DOJ), making the general principles described in the “organization sources” section above applicable here too. In particular, look for the plural “officials” over the singular “official.”

Why you shouldn’t trust these sources: This kind of sourcing is relatively opaque. The Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Capitol Police, the D.C. police department, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. would all count as law enforcement agencies based in Washington. If you were a reporter trying to check out a story attributed to “law enforcement officials,” you would need to call all these agencies.

And sometimes these agencies disagree with one another. At his Senate hearing, Comey described his discomfort (and disagreement) with the terminology that the previous attorney general, Loretta Lynch, wanted to use when publicly discussing the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of e-mail as secretary of state. (According to Comey, Lynch wanted to refer to the probe as a “matter,” not an “investigation.”) So a story referring to “law enforcement officials” about the e-mail controversy could have had different takes, depending on whether the sources were aligned with Lynch or Comey.


4. The spies

Intelligence officials

Why you should trust these sources: The number of publications with intelligence community reporters is very small. You are unlikely to read a story quoting unnamed intelligence officials outside of the big papers, like the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and the major television news networks. So the general reliability of those outlets helps gives these stories credibility.

Why you shouldn’t trust these sources: As is the case with law enforcement sources, “intelligence officials” could refer to many agencies in the U.S. government: the FBI, CIA, NSA, the intelligence departments at the Defense and State departments. The U.S. Senate and U.S. House also have intelligence committees with staffs, so those people could also be described as intelligence officials. And some reporters have sources within intelligence agencies in other nations, and they would also fall under this category. So this sourcing is opaque.

Also, even if the intelligence sources are accurately reporting their own views, the intelligence itself could be wrong or overhyped (see weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). And there is very little ability for a reporter to push back. A political reporter can travel to Ohio and look for signs that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump has a strong organization in the Buckeye State. It is much harder for an intelligence reporter to verify, outside of using his sources, Russia’s hacking efforts, for example.


5. Politicians and their staffers

Administration officials,” “congressional sources

Why you should trust these sources: Generally, the term “administration officials” is used by journalists to refer to political appointees. So “Trump administration officials” means people who are aligned with the administration, not just federal workers. When sources ask for this designation, they are often trying to shield their identity more carefully (“State Department officials” narrows down the universe of sources) or may be trying to downplay the role of their department (Treasury, State, etc.).

Why you should not trust these sources: This sourcing is opaque and has potential for errors. A White House employee, for example, could be describing something that he or she expects the State Department to do, and State may not be in line with the White House view. Or vice versa.

And Congress is, technically, a organization, like State or Defense. But Congress is really a body of 535 independent entities loosely aligned under two parties. A source in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office will have different information and a different agenda than one in the office of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. “Congressional sources” is better than nothing, but only barely.


6. Sourcing that tells you nothing

People familiar with the investigation,” “U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports,” “current and former officials familiar with the investigations,” “one current and one former American official with knowledge of the continuing congressional and F.B.I. investigations,” “Republican strategist,” “Democratic strategist,” “senior Republicans

Why you should trust these sources: The first several phrases here come from stories about the interactions that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, has had with various Russian figures. Phrases like “senior Republicans” and “Democratic strategist” come from political coverage.

This style of sourcing has a “just trust us” quality to it, and the descriptions of the sources are essentially meaningless. A “former American official” could be anyone who ever worked in the U.S. government. “People familiar with” the Russia investigation could range from low-level officials at the Department of Justice to former President Barack Obama. One assumes that the lawyers, consultants and others employed by the various people being written about in Trump-Russia stories are “familiar with the investigation.” They could be the sources for some stories.

(The difference between “sources familiar with Comey’s thinking” and “sources familiar with the investigation” is that the former is both more verifiable and more risky for the news outlet. You can contact Comey to check his thinking, and he can call the Times to say if his thinking has been described incorrectly. “Sources familiar with the investigation,” on the other hand, does not put anyone on the spot, and investigators rarely go on the record during an investigation — even to say that published accounts are wrong.)

A “Democratic strategist” could be anyone who worked in any Democratic campaign or on the staff of any Democratic office-holder, at any level of government. This type of sourcing is also often used by people who are not government officials at all, but political consultants.

So, why should you trust these stories? You are truly relying on the reporters and the outlets here — and on their records of reporting verifiable claims. Some publications and journalists have established strong reputations for trustworthiness. The Washington Post reported stories that essentially forced the resignation of Flynn earlier this year. Marty Baron, the Post’s top editor, ran The Boston Globe when it broke the stories about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests — coverage featured in the movie “Spotlight.” Earlier this year, outlets investigating Trump/Russia stories may have appeared to be pushing forward an allegation that seemed far-fetched (some kind of direct collusion, coordination or at least general prior knowledge of the Russian hacking effort by the Trump campaign). But at this point, the Flynn firing, the Comey firing, Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-associated lawyer and other events have validated the decisions by the Post, Times, CNN and other outlets to invest heavily in reporting on the Trump-Russia connection.

“One thing that I think really needs explaining to non-journalists is the number of people at a newspaper or network who will read an investigative story” before it runs, said Al Cross, who was a longtime reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal and now teaches at the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “News consumers say they get most of their news from television, which emphasizes the individual roles of the anchor and reporter and does little to remind people that journalism is a collective act.”

Why you should not trust these sources: The competition to get scoops among journalists and big papers creates pressure that could lead to the overhyping of certain stories or the use of weak sourcing that leads to inaccuracies.

CNN last month accepted the resignations of three journalists, including a top editor in charge of an investigative unit, after announcing that it could not stand behind a story it had published on the Russia controversy. The article, which has now been removed from CNN’s website, relied on a single unnamed “congressional source” to suggest that Congress was investigating ties between a Russian investment fund and people connected to Trump. One of the Trump allies named in the CNN story, Anthony Scaramucci, publicly denied the account.

“The zeal to break news can create haste that leads to flawed reporting,” wrote the Post’s media reporter, Paul Farhi, in the wake of the CNN resignations. “Like all major news organizations, CNN is under pressure to produce scoops that draw ratings and Web traffic, and to stay competitive with the likes of the New York Times and The Washington Post, which have been leaders on the Trump-Russia story.”


Conclusions: Caveat lector

“The whole system of anonymous sources has a flaw,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. “Sometimes the name that is withheld is bigger news than the news the withheld name is offering. But there is no way for the readers to know because the name is … withheld.”

Rosen is right. But as a reader, you don’t have any other options. Washington stories have always been full of unnamed sources. But now, we are in a unique era: an administration with a lot of factions, often fighting with one another; a federal bureaucracy skeptical of its boss; a Republican majority in Congress leery of Trump but often not wanting to blast him with their names attached. So there are lots of people who want to talk to the press, but also lots of incentives for them to do so without their names attached. Heck, the former FBI director was essentially acting as an unnamed source, so you can imagine that others with fewer credentials (or more to lose) are even more afraid to go on the record.

So our advice is: Read all of these vaguely sourced stories with skepticism. But if you really want to keep up with Trump’s Washington, you probably don’t have a choice but to read some stories with unnamed sources.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.


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