Avoid anonymous sources


Occasionally I read something that causes me to cringe. The story “Butler’s Cultural Requirement causes concern,” which ran on page four of the Feb. 18 Collegian, resulted in one of those moments.

In the story, reporter Kyle Kitowski quoted a sophomore accounting major who thinks the cultural requirement—taking in eight on-campus performances before you graduate—is a waste of time.

After quoting sophomore Aaron Smith as supporting the BCR, Kitowski wrote: “However, another sophomore, an accounting major who preferred to remain unnamed, had a different view.

“‘Personally, I don’t see the value in these events, which is why I usually try to leave early. I have never been to one that I enjoyed,’ the student said.”

While I take great issue with the opinion—you can find a worthwhile speaker or performance on this campus nearly every day—I’m also bothered by The Collegian granting someone anonymity to express an opinion.

The Collegian staff manual has clearly worded guidelines about using anonymous sources. It says: “The Collegian strongly discourages the use of anonymous sources. Reporters do not have the power to grant anonymity to a source. The editor-in-chief or a managing editor must grant this privilege. Anonymity may be granted only when it is absolutely essential to tell an important story that otherwise would go unreported. Anonymity should never be granted to obtain opinion or salacious details.”

There was nothing essential about that quote. All it did was give cover to a student who expressed an opinion that he knew would be criticized by his professors, if not his peers.

Granting anonymity to someone who is expressing an opinion gives that person the freedom to say anything, however inflammatory. And allowing this practice has enabled some unethical reporters to make up quotes. (I am not suggesting the reporter invented the quote.)

The Collegian’s manual is consistent with the rules that professional reporters use. NPR’s Ethics Handbook explains the reasoning well:

“Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports…. While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny.”

I emailed Kitowski (and copied editor-in-chief Julian Wyllie) and asked:

Why you didn’t use the name of the person who was critical of the BCR? Did the editors question you about this? Had you read the entry in The Collegian policy manual about anonymous sources?

He responded: “I did not use the source’s name because they explicitly stated that they did not want to be named because they knew their comments would be unpopular (as evidenced by the reply to the article on the website). While this was not ideal, they provided a unique perspective that I felt was vital to the story and thus I was willing to make the concession for the content.

“I was never questioned about my use of an unnamed source. And I had not previously read the Collegian policy on the use of unnamed sources. I figured that if there was an issue one of the editors would bring it to my attention before the story went to print.”

When it comes to disliking the BCR, the anonymous accounting student has company among his/her fellow students. But with a little extra legwork, the reporter could have found a student who would have expressed the same opinion and had the nerve to attach his/her name to it.

And the editors should have stopped that quote before it got into the paper.

As for why the BCR matters, Professor of Religion James McGrath said it beautifully in a letter to the editor. His letter is worth reading in its entirety, but let me just quote a portion:

“What disturbed me most about what this student said … was not the ridiculous claim to be unable to enjoy any cultural event. What disturbed me is that this student does not know why he or she is at university, and is trying to fake their way through.”