You Can Always Find an Anonymous Former Employee to Trash the Founder

In the wake of NYTimes getting some critical facts wrong about Facebook and terrorism, Dan Gillmor calls on news organizations to adopt the principle of “it’s ok to out your anonymous source if it turns out they were lying” [note it’s not clear that the NYTimes was lied to, rather they blame it on their source not having deep understanding of social media and bad reporting].

Gillmor’s position is an extreme one but his frustration with anonymous sourcing mirrors mine. Some members of the technology press grant anonymity far too often and in ways that feel like they’re merely seeking a quote to generate controversy. Let me tell you, you can ALWAYS find an anonymous former employee, “person with knowledge of the situation” or other vessel to deliver a negative statement about a company or founder.

I understand that in our community there’s often little to be gained by “being negative” on the record, so for a reporter to get both sides of the story, they may feel the need to protect a source. And that different reporters and entities have their own differing policies. The tradeoff though is that it strips all context, and without understanding the context behind the quotation – who is the source? are they in a position to know? what’s their bias? – the reader is unable to judge the quality of the statement.

To me, anonymity is a serious give from a reporter, employed with good judgment to access and publish important information that would truly put a source in jeopardy if they were directly tied to the facts (for example, whistleblowing about illegal activities). Use these leads as heat drawing you towards the real fire, not just as false controversy.

For members of the tech community outside of the media, I believe it’s quite cowardly to give quotations, for print, without willing to be named as a source. You can provide background thoughts, even point a reporter towards a smoking gun if you wish, but to give nothing more than your feelings and not stand up for them, well, you’re playing a karmic game. If something stinks and you want to say it on the record, be willing to stand behind it.

I’m hoping that in 2016 source anonymity is given another once over by editors and maybe I’ll periodically update this post with examples of shameful abuse.

Update: Recode’s Peter Kafka pointed me towards two columns from reporter Jack Shafer discussing his own long-standing frustration with the self-destructing nature of over-relying upon anonymous sources.