A recent spate of stories published by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal reported that President Donald Trump may have improperly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate one of Trump’s political opponents. But each of the reports relied heavily on anonymous sources, who pose a unique challenge to journalists who are working to break sensitive stories, says Matthew Carroll, a professor of the practice in the School of Journalism at Northeastern.
“It’s always problematic, because there’s always a credibility issue,” says Carroll, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 as the data specialist on The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that broke the Catholic Church sex scandal. “But this is a very different kind of situation. It looks like, from the stories I’m reading, that the original tip, which was pretty vague, was 100% accurate.”
On Wednesday, The Post cited two unnamed sources who claimed an official in the U.S. intelligence community had filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that the president had made a troubling promise to a foreign leader. On Thursday, the Post and the Times published reports citing anonymous sources who said that the complaint had something to do with Ukraine. Then on Friday, the Journal released a report based on interviews with “people familiar with the matter,” who said that Trump had repeatedly pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
The president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, acknowledged Thursday that he asked a Ukrainian official to investigate Biden’s son. And Trump acknowledged Sunday that he discussed Biden in a phone call with the Ukrainian president.
“If people say it didn’t happen, then it becomes a really tough balancing act,” Carroll says of the decision to use anonymous sources. “But in this case, that’s not what is happening at all. People in the administration are not saying that it didn’t happen, or that it is a total lie.”
The Post, the Times, and the Journal each relied on at least two anonymous sources to report their stories. Carroll says that it would be unusual for a newspaper to report any piece of news based on a single, anonymous source. Not only might the source be making up the story, he says, but publishing a report based only on the information provided by one person could also put that source in danger.
“If only one person knows about the story and you report it, that can be very bad news for that source because it’s pretty easy to figure out who the tipster was,” Carroll says. “But in this case, it just felt like a lot of people knew what was going on, so it was going to be pretty hard to figure out who that tipster was.”
Carroll says that the sheer number of people who appear to have been familiar with the complaint filed by the whistleblower helped to propel the story forward. Although the story published by the Post Wednesday lacked specific details, he says it provided enough information to persuade other reporters to ask questions of others sources, who backed up the original reports and provided new information in subsequent stories.
The reporters likely went to great lengths to vet the credibility of their anonymous sources, Carroll says. He describes the fact-checking process as a “delicate dance,” saying that asking too many specific questions could lead reporters to frame facts in such a way that gives away the identities of their unidentified sources.
“If someone gives you a tip anonymously, you have to try to confirm it through other means, and sometimes get documents, sometimes talk to officials or other people who might be involved in the story,” he says.
Carroll points out that his editors would scrutinize the information he received from anonymous sources.
“I always talked to my editors about it first and said, “Look, this is the source, this is how I’m confirming it,’” Carroll says. “But sometimes they will say it’s not solid enough, and you can’t run with a story. And sometimes they would say we had enough, and we go ahead with the story.”
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