Somewhere in between Watergate’s “Deep Throat” and Tom Brady’s retirement, a lot has been lost about how and why news organizations use anonymous sources. I hope this can fill in some of the blanks.
I see this from different perspectives. Years ago, as a TV news producer, I put stories on the air that had been based on reporting used unnamed sources. Depending on the reporter and his or her level of connections and experience, and the plausible level of knowledge of the source itself, “one of my guys tells me” could be enough. In the PR business, we have had to respond to reporters working on a story based on the word of a source that won’t be named (we wrote about the culture of leaks in 2017). In real life (but never violating client confidentiality agreements or even understandings), I have provided information to journalists under an agreement that it would not be for attribution.
Here’s what was proven in the case of Brady, when ESPN reported his retirement and stuck with it, even after it was temporarily denied by Brady: Anonymous sources are not anonymous within news organizations.
We’re not talking about news tips via text from random numbers or voicemails in hushed tones. In the case of ESPN, just like Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters know who the source is. They also have to defend the use of protecting anonymity to the their bosses, who must sign off on this type of reporting.
The reasons for sources requesting not to be named are numerous and with legitimate news organizations, there are standards that must be met in order for a source to be granted this type of protection. There is a danger on both sides of doing reporting like this. It can be a tightrope act. But when the source’s information is accurate, as proven again this time, it can be valuable currency for news organizations.
Keep in mind, in case of Brady, he didn’t flat-out deny the accuracy of the story. He didn’t say anything like “I’m fully planning on playing in 2022.” It was just about the timing and the way it was delivered. From his point of view, which is, on occasion, the same as our clients, it can be exceptionally frustrating to lose control of your own story. It’s another reason to keep circles of information as small as possible prior to an effort to make news, closing as many windows as possible from this kind of situation.