Anonymous sources: Press Freedom or Fraud/Foe?

Unnamed sources the source of chastise for the media, a contentious phenomenon, is it an abused practice or a means to newsgathering?

“An important aspect of newsgathering and reporting, naming names consistently creates news stories that deem to be credible.” US Fred Vultee Journalism associate professor Wayne State University.

The media landscape across the globe has an over-reliance on anonymous sources sometimes this leads to diminishing public trust.


Journalistic transparency can be sometimes sacrificed on public interest, but media outlets need to specifically state categorically why they granted anonymity, also corroborate the information with other sources.

Matt J. Duffy and Carrie Packwood Freeman authors of Unnamed sources: utilitarian exploration say “The news media itself is a vital part of society whose credibility stands to be harmed by the use of unnamed sources, especially when information from anonymous sources turns out to be wrong”.

The teleological ethic utilitarianism says each option is weighed in terms of the benefits that they would give to the greatest number of people or the pain that it would cause to all those affected.

Code of practice 1.4 ‘Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified’.

The greater good for the greatest number: the act utilitarian perhaps saw the benefits of a wide circulation of copies, or a minimised self-inflicted pain to flout this rules, taking the word of a single source without any corroboration, which lead to embarrassing consequences.

According iMediaEthics in 2015 City press was forced to hire a fact checker. This was after numerous retractions, clarifications and complaints for serious errors made in the weekly newspaper. The American newsroom standard of operation model, Fact checkers aren’t really popular and practiced in the country, perhaps due to down-scaling and juniorisation of the newsrooms this responsibility mostly lays with the sub editor and reporter, but with overwhelming workloads little things fall through the crack.

That’s where a fact checker comes in to verify certain information and details that could have been missed. Another bold move on the part of the paper was limiting the use of anonymous sources; for review and training of their staff Haffajee enlisted journalism ethicist Franz Kruger and accuracy watchdog Africa check.








Former editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee in one of the numerous articles with mistakes issued a retraction and an apology to President Jacob Zuma.

Also Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe in 2009 ruled that The Times story was an example of reckless use of anonymous source, run on a mealtime conversation overheard between former presidency director general Frank Chikane and former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin during the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane in 2007. An unnamed source claimed former president Thabo Mbeki was reportedly asked to take himself out of the running for the ANC presidency in the face of open hostility by supporters of Jacob Zuma, who was eventually elected.

The ombudsman said: “Not a single person who was at the Sunday meeting is quoted and nobody corroborates the lunchtime source on the Chikane-Erwin conversation.”

Avusa’s editorial policy guide of 2012 possibly amended due to the press ombud’s scathing ruling states “Wherever possible, we try to persuade anonymous sources to go on the record. We use anonymous sources only when there is no other way to publish the story. Where it is unavoidable to use anonymous sources, we adhere to the following:  Anonymous sources must have direct knowledge of the facts. Wherever possible they should provide evidence”.

In the two cases, the journalists opted for consequences rather than follow the rules.  The golden mean of their actions would have been to finding a second or third source.


Duffy and Packwood Freeman mention “we find that few uses of anonymous sourcing can be justified when weighed against diminished credibility and threats to fair, transparent reporting.”

Professor Guy Berger Rhodes University says “the most common argument in favour of why sources should be protected is the “chilling effect” one. This holds that if founts of information cannot trust journalists to keep confidentiality, they will simply dry up. The result is that the public will be the poorer, because many matters would then never see the light of day”.

The Press Council’s Code of Ethics section 11.2. says Avoid the use of anonymous sources unless there is no other way to deal with a story. Care should be taken to corroborate the information;

Referencing a source is an important guiding block of journalist’s truthfulness. This gives the public an opportunity to verify the information provided, leading to building credibility and trustworthiness.

There’s no question about the need for anonymous sources as vital news would go unpublished if information could be attributed, violating the constitutional obligation of freedom to impart and freedom to receive information.

SAPA reported that The Freedom of Expression Institute in 2010 asked the South African Law Reform Commission to investigate amending section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act to introduce a “shield law” to protect confidential journalistic sources and information.

The interests of effective administration of justice and maintenance of law and order competed with the right to freedom of expression.

At the core of this conflict lay the question whether the public interest in compelling the journalist to reveal his or her source or confidential information clearly outweighed the public interest in the free flow of information.

This is a deontological problem, where does the law draw the line?



Hyde-Clarke, N. 2011 Communication and Media Ethics in South Africa. Cape Town. Juta

Smith, S, 2015. South African newspaper hires Fact Checker, Cuts back on Anonymous Sources after Zuma Retraction, Complaints to Press Ombuds . 26 Sept 2016

Rudnicki, D, Carleton University. ‘Insiders Say’: The Use of Unnamed Sources in the Globe and Mail Canadian Journal of Media Studies, Vol. 2(1). 25 Sept 2016

Berger, G. and brand affidavit Case Number: 05/16077 20 September 2016

Berger, G. Rhodes Protection of Sources

Unnamed and Anonymous Sources: Did They Shape the Debate Over Invading Iraq? John A. Hatcher University of Minnesota, Duluth USA

Staff reporter. FXI wants better protection for confidential sources. 2010 26 September 2016

Press Council.  2016. Code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media.






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