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Politics

Anonymous sources — why media outlets use them, and why it’s not ‘phony’ or ‘fake news’

WATCH: Is the anonymous author of a New York Times Trump Op-Ed a traitor or a patriot?

The New York Times published an anonymous opinion piece Thursday, saying it was a “rare” move made after lengthy deliberations.

The newspaper said the writer, who was only described as a “senior White House official,” feared going public would mean losing their job.

READ MORE: Who wrote the anonymous New York Times op-ed about Trump? Here’s what the oddsmakers say

“The Times’s Opinion desk has taken the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay,” it explained. “We did so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.”

It encouraged readers to ask questions of its vetting process.

The New York Times was likely anticipating heavy scrutiny over its call to publish the anonymous op-ed. And it was correct.

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U.S. President Donald Trump spoke out about the op-ed, which was was critical of his leadership style and questioned his morals.

On Twitter, the president questioned whether the newspaper has made up the anonymous source. His Press Secretary also bashed editors for being “deceitful” and “reckless” by publishing the op-ed.

But Ivor Shapiro, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, explained that it’s not reckless. News organizations recognize the risks of reporting with anonymous sources, and only take it when necessary.

“Over the recent decades, quality news organizations have been less and less inclined to use anonymous sources, and more and more inclined to set guidelines for reporters and editors about these decisions,” he told Global News.

WATCH: Trump criticizes damning New York Times op-ed as ‘gutless’

Trump criticizes damning New York Times op-ed as ‘gutless’
Trump criticizes damning New York Times op-ed as ‘gutless’

Shapiro said this particular decision must have been especially debated within the Times newsroom, because they didn’t just use one anonymous source in a story — they completely removed a byline from an opinion piece.

“That’s extremely rare. It’s so rare most news organizations would not have a process for such situations. I imagine it went all the to the top of The New York Times,” he said.

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The New York Times does make an effort to make that decision-making process of using such sources transparent.

Its standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, explains on the Times’ website why the paper sometimes use anonymous sources.

“Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way,” Corbett writes.

READ MORE: In rare anonymous NYT op-ed, senior Trump official details White House ‘resistance’ movement

The newspaper’s guidelines stipulate that along with the writer, one other editor in the newsroom must know the identity of an anonymous source.

“Use of anonymous sources in any story must be approved by a high-ranking editor, usually a department head like the International editor or the Washington bureau chief, or their deputies,” the Times explains.

The paper adds that it understands why readers are skeptical when trusting anonymous sources, and that’s why the decision can be difficult.

WATCH: Trump tweets ‘TREASON?’ in response to bombshell New York Times op-ed

Trump tweets ‘TREASON?’ in response to bombshell New York Times op-ed
Trump tweets ‘TREASON?’ in response to bombshell New York Times op-ed

Shapiro explained that anonymous sources carry a greater risk of lying, or manipulating reporters and editors.

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“If the information turns out to be false or misleading in some way, [readers] can’t go back to the source,” he said, noting there is a lack of accountability for the source.

He said the question is this: “Does the benefit of running this outweigh the harm it does potentially to media trust?”

In this case, the Times decided yes.

READ MORE: Here are the Trump staffers who have denied writing the anonymous New York Times op-ed

And it has prompted discussion within the industry about what the lasting implications of the decision may be.

Kelly McBride, a professor at The Poynter Institute, wrote about the decision Thursday, saying it could lead more people to be distrustful of the media. 

She added that The New York Times ought to reveal more about their vetting and verification process for this story.

WATCH: Pompeo denies writing New York Times op-ed slamming Trump administration

Pompeo denies writing New York Times op-ed slamming Trump administration
Pompeo denies writing New York Times op-ed slamming Trump administration

“This author is pushing the government toward a grave and critical outcome. The public has an interest in knowing all it can about the forces behind such tumult. It would be helpful if the Times disclosed whether and how it vetted the writer’s claims.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists spells out similar ethics for using anonymous sources, namely, being as transparent as possible.

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“When we do use unnamed sources, we identify them as accurately as possible by affiliation or status,” the organization’s guidelines state.

The New York Times has promised to soon offer more information on the anonymous op-ed and answer reader questions.

However, the newspaper’s opinion editor James Dao has declined to elaborate on the newsroom’s internal discussions, saying it could compromise the writer’s identity.

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