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Off the record, a source said; a senior government official said on background; according to an insider. How important are anonymous sources in reporting? Overuse or misuse can hurt credibility, but you need those insider voices for many stories to get beyond the press releases and speeches.

They are crucial when the news can’t be told without those who fear retribution or job loss, but shouldn’t be used for personal opinions or by decision-makers who are shirking responsibility.

There have been a few examples in the past weeks in The Globe and Mail, both good and bad. The profiles of the eight men, victims of an alleged serial killer, could not be told without hearing from friends and family members, some of whom were not named. The investigation into allegations of unwanted sexual contact by winemaker Norman Hardie couldn’t be fully told without the off-the-record information from many of the 50 people interviewed. In both cases, these articles used some key sources on the record as well.

One reporter here calls it triangulation: using public documents, on-the-record interviews and not-for-attribution interviews to get the most complete story. Any major investigative piece relies on all three and might use anonymous sources for the initial tip or to add details and confirmation to what the on-the-record people say.

During the start of the tariff and trade skirmish, I saw another good example of using such sources.

Hours before the official announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs, The Globe’s auto and steel industry reporter Greg Keenan, Washington correspondent Adrian Morrow and Washington columnist Lawrence Martin filed a story confirming both the U.S. plan and also Canada’s proposed retaliation.

Although you don’t know the names of those they talked to, the story described the sources as people “briefed on Ottawa’s strategy” and “a senior Canadian official,” as well as a “U.S. industry source.”

This works with The Globe’s policy on anonymous sources, which is meant to get not only the most detailed news but also give you the best idea of where the information is coming from. The Washington Post was credited with breaking the story. I applaud that practice and think it should happen more.

The reporters and their editors know who these “senior Canadian officials” are and have probably spoken with them before and trust them. That trust is necessary because if the information is wrong, it’s not the source’s credibility but the reporter’s and organization’s name on the line.

The Globe’s policy says anonymous sources are not to be used lightly and are subject to the following conditions: “They convey important details or information that cannot be obtained for attribution elsewhere; They are not used to voice opinions or make ad hominem or personal attacks; We must be diligent in describing sources as fully as possible. That includes: how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information, why we agreed to grant them anonymity and how they will be described in an article.”

A study this month by the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in the United States found that the media isn’t doing a good enough job explaining how journalism works. More than half of those in the survey said they knew what anonymous sourcing involved, but only 35 per cent said that their favourite outlets did a good job of explaining how these sources were used.

The Globe is now experimenting with adding background boxes explaining journalism issues, such as the use of anonymous sources on stories like the Hardie investigation.

Not all articles follow this gold standard though. One recent article directly quoted unidentified tweets from alleged airline passengers? There was no verification that these people were indeed passengers of that airline or whether they had an axe to grind. Since the tweets were essentially opinions, nameless points of view should not be allowed except in the rarest circumstances. That may work in online comment sections, or on social media, but not in news stories.

As noted in the policy, quotes add an authority that generally shouldn’t be given to nameless people.

Another story used an anonymous quote from someone described as a Natural Resources Canada expert on hybrid electric vehicles. I see no reason for an off-the-record quote about a technical definition of how fuel-economy ratings work. If you need a person to quote and they won’t be quoted, keep looking or go to a website for the technical explanation.

Official spokesmen or women should not be granted anonymity. If that is their job, they need to put their name to the statement.

These days when some are quick to blame the messenger and cry “fake” when it’s something they don’t like, it is incumbent on the media to use anonymous sources with care and to be as open as possible about that person’s background and expertise. As the code says, the point of anonymous sources is to “get the fullest story possible, not to let people dodge accountability or take anonymous potshots.”

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