Controversy arose in the United States due to the usage of anonymous sources by The New York Times, who accused one of the Republican candidates, John McCain, of improper conduct by favoring clients of a woman with whom he had maintained a romantic relationship, even though he is married. This action has caused some of our readers to question the rules that EL PAÍS uses in the case of anonymous sources. Some letters have gone a little bit further and criticized what they consider a general practice of Spanish Journalism, including EL PAÍS — the use and abuse of anonymous sources.
Anselmo González wrote: “Tell me from what fountain you drink, and I’ll tell you what product you are distilling. A problem that you all have is that these anonymous sources are always recurring — they are often generic, just like the sources near the diplomats, the socialists, or the populists — and seem only to be for holding up the opinions or making valuations on people who attacked, without even knowing where the attack comes from. One time I read that journalists rarely are in a position of establishing the truth by themselves, and they depend on sources with their own interests to hold up an a version of reality that they present. And you all constantly break your own Book of Style that says word for word that ‘it’s not interesting to know an opinion if it’s not known where it’s from.'”
This reader correctly recalls an article of the Book of Style of EL PAÍS, which also has twelve more in its first chapter — Principality — on the use of sources, but he seems a bit exaggerated. The responsible use of anonymous sources remains essential in some cases, and even in the case of the controversy in The New York Times, the management maintained strong arguments, even if their points did not convince this article.
Does the origin of information determine the truthfulness of news? Antonio Caño, correspondent of this paper in the United States, ha responded to this defense about the ethics of anonymous sources and the professional control of the media in the United States.
“The major problem is not if a source is anonymous,” responded Antonio Caño, “but at times it is necessary in order to protect the supplier of valuable information; in extreme cases, to protect their life. The problem is the way that they are using them. An anonymous or close source cannot be the base of defaming or qualifying anyone or anything, less so if it refers to some party, to a business, or a rival. It can be sufficient to inform of a meeting, or a secret exchange of information, as long as the journalist (who hasn’t witness what has happened), makes an honest effort to confirm the information and publish the truth. For these cases, and in order to protect the truth, there is a strict process of control in the North American media. It includes identifying with their bosses and the certification on the part of the editors on the sources that the reporter consulted. But in no case is it legitimate, as with The Times, to accuse someone of dishonest conduct on the base on anonymous information — presumably turned over by the enemies of McCain. As this article concludes, the journalists simply were not capable of completing the process of filtering the information — and they should have renounced their publication.”
“In the United States, furthermore, the use of unidentified sources is closely linked to the credibility of a newspaper. A paper with proven fairness and professionalism can use anonymous sources without the reader stopping to think if it’s a manipulation or a simple invention. The controversy around the McCain case, as well as the damage suffered by the senator himself, is caused precisely due to the rigor and independence of The New York Times. Its readers, along with readers of other newspapers, have little to no trouble believing what it publishes.”
The information available to a journalist is only obtainable in three ways: being at the scene, a third person account, or some type of document. The reader has the right of knowing which of these three are being used in the article that he/she is reading. This is what the Book of Style demands, but it also says that “the request for anonymity from a source should be respected,” but “the writer should also seek some reason for such request: fear of reprisals, need to maintain confidentiality, or something else similar.” Perhaps the abuse of the use of sources with whatever matter has become a unique, trivial resource. And, from there comes the feeling of some readers that they can exchange a cat for a rabbit.