What anonymous sources cost journalism

News accounts that rely on confidential sources do not contain within themselves the information required for us to trust them. By definition we cannot “go to the source” because the source is hidden. If we extend our trust to such reports, we do so because of reputation: the reporter’s reputation, or more often the news brand’s.

Some acts of journalism are easier to trust than others. If I tell you what the data shows about test scores in different schools around your district, and I also link to the data so you can check for yourself, that is a fundamentally different act from… “The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said.” (My italics.)

That term, “officials said” is relatively hard to trust. We can’t go to those people and ask: did you really say that? We can’t decide how credible they are, and act accordingly. Instead we have to trust the Washington Post, which gave us this report, and its reporters. It might be rational to do so, but it’s also subtractive. We are drawing on reserves of trust built up by previous acts of journalism that told us the Post could be trusted. Some acts of reporting add to the bank account, others draw upon reserves of trust. To put it another way, when trust is the currency, stories that depend on anonymous sources are expensive.

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