by David Rosenbaum

Why and When CIO Magazine Uses Anonymous Sources

Sep 01, 20053 mins
IT Leadership

Nobody likes anonymous sources.

Reporters don’t like them because an anonymous source means they failed to persuade that source to go on the record. Editors don’t like them because they know that an assertion carries more weight when it has a name attached to it.

Defense lawyers don’t like them because the anonymity reporters promise sources is not protected by federal law. If a federal court or special prosecutor demands that a reporter reveal the identity of a source—as one did in July, sending New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail when she refused to comply—the reporter’s claim of privilege cannot be successfully defended.

Most important, readers don’t like them because, well, how reliable is the testimony of someone who hides his face?

So why do we use anonymous sources? Because in a less-than-perfect world, it is sometimes necessary to use less-than-perfect means to arrive at some approximation of truth.

Put simply, our job as journalists is to find out what’s happening and tell you about it. Naturally, individuals and organizations are not eager to help us find out what’s happening when that reflects poorly on them. In those cases, a reporter who’s doing her job well finds people willing to talk—even if they’re not willing to attach their names to their words.

To mitigate these negatives when a CIO reporter uses anonymous sources, the story’s editor requires that the information be backed up by at least one other credible source telling substantially the same story. The source must also be speaking of his experience, not another’s. And the reporter must reveal the name of the source to the editor and convince the editor that said source doesn’t have an ax to grind.

This was the case with Senior Editor Stephanie Overby’s “Backsourcing Pain,” Page 64, about JPMorgan Chase’s experience in canceling an outsourcing arrangement with IBM and bringing the outsourced IT back in-house. Overby spoke with more than a dozen current and former JPMorgan Chase employees (some for, some not for attribution); she collected risumis to show that the sources were currently employed in good jobs (reducing the concern about grinding axes), and confirmed data from other independent and reliable sources.

Using anonymous sources is not something we like to do. In this case, we felt it was the only way to show the impact on employees of massive sourcing shifts and the negative effect that impact can have on your business.

The fact is, as the Rolling Stones once pointed out, you can’t always get what you want (a person on the record), but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need (the true story).

David Rosenbaum, Managing Editor