Opinion: Anonymous Sourcing’s Role in the Coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing

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December 7, 2021

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(ORANGE, Calif.) — An ethical journalist strives to report what is verifiably true in a way that maximizes the benefit to the public and minimizes harm to the innocent. By following these principles, a journalist can contribute to a healthier democracy. The use of anonymous sources, although a useful and sometimes necessary tool in reporting on sensitive matters, can challenge these principles by potentially casting doubt on a journalist’s motive and the report’s veracity. It can erode a journalist’s credibility.

In a survey conducted by the Associated Press Managing Editors, respondent Bruce Fritz called anonymous sourcing a double-edged sword, saying, “Anonymity brings with it a willingness to cast light into the dark places that hide secrets about what we all need to know. On the other hand, the use of anonymous sources makes the media a dupe for putting out unreliable stories.”

The latter occurred in spades following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. In their rush to report breaking news, many reputable news outlets relied on questionable information from anonymous sources and got things wrong. The New York Post, for example, stubbornly exaggerated the death toll crediting intel from an unknown “federal law enforcement source.” Two days after the bombing, CNN cited “three very credible sources” when they announced an arrest even before the FBI had identified suspects. The Associated Press and the Boston Globe followed suit. The FBI denied any such arrest and issued a rare statement reprimanding the press.

“There have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that have been inaccurate,” the FBI report said. “Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media… to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

Most organizations were quick to own their errors, issuing apologies and explanations. Given the nature of rapidly developing breaking news, mistakes can happen as anonymous sources may prove fallible. However, with regards to the Boston Marathon bombing, the mistakes continued to happen, though largely by commentators and conspiracy theorists whose claims were inadvertently legitimized by the press. Anonymous Reddit users went on a manhunt and falsely identified suspects — namely a 17-year-old high school student, Salah Barhoun, and a missing Brown University Student, Sunil Tripathi (who was later found dead of suicide). Left to Reddit, this could have remained idle gossip until it was shared and essentially legitimized by credible journalists from BuzzFeed, NBC News, Slate, and NY Times.

Similarly, news outlets inadvertently gave right-wing pundit Glenn Beck (of “The Glenn Beck Show”) a platform in reporting on Beck’s accusations that 22-year-old Saudi national, Abdulrahman Alharbi, was the money-man behind the bombing. Like the others, Beck’s claims rested on information from anonymous sources. Alharbi eventually sued Beck for defamation after Beck continued to accuse Alharbi well after the Department of Homeland Security cleared him of involvement. Beck settled rather than reveal his sources (as was ordered) in what he called “furtherance of fundamental principles of journalistic integrity.” 

Though arguably not a journalist, Beck clearly fancied himself one in this instance. Regardless, it provides a cautionary tale for journalists who put their own credibility on the line and risk public trust when they agree to grant anonymity to a source and report on unverified information.  

Benjamin Bradlee, the famed former executive editor of the Washington Post, wondered why journalists grant sources anonymity at all. He noted that in so doing, journalists “shamelessly do other people’s bidding . . . and demean [the] profession.” Many news organizations have strict policies discouraging the use of anonymous sources. For example, reporters for the AP must first get permission from their news manager, who later vets the information for accuracy and ensures it meets the organization’s standards. They allow it only when the following criteria are met: 

“The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the report. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source. The source is reliable and in a position to have direct knowledge of the information.” 

It’s possible that in their coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing, all these journalists and commentators trusted their sources and believed their intel met such criteria and that it was important enough to report despite the risks. But the highly sensitive nature of the story required an abundance of caution that goes beyond meeting basic criteria — both for the sake of the potentially innocent individuals accused and to preserve public trust. Going forward with anonymous sources always poses a risk, and with public trust already precariously low, such risks are unwise

Over-reliance on anonymous sources and the reporting that followed hurt people. A public indictment affects the accused for much longer than the life of a story. Since his death, the Tripathi family has tried to separate Sunil’s story from the Boston Marathon bombing, but worries that it’s impossible.

“For you to Google his name and know that they will always come up together … makes me so mad, because he was such a private person,” says his aunt, Nina Taylor. 

Alharbi discussed the aftermath of Beck’s accusation and the media coverage that followed it in an exclusive interview with The Islamic Monthly:

“I am trying to disappear from the people . . . I am double injured — from the explosion then the media . . . I lost my privacy,” Alharbi said. “So that’s why I am really scared.”

In addition to hurting individuals, inaccurate or unverifiable reports from unknown sources erode credibility and public trust, which poses a threat to a functioning democracy. If the public cannot identify the source of their information, why should they trust it? If they cannot trust their free press, where can they go for information? The danger, as articulated by philosopher Hannah Arendt, is that you will have a public that no longer believes anything, who cannot make up its mind, and who will lose its capacity to act, to think, and to judge. “With such a people,” she says, “you can then do what you please.” 

As watchdogs for the public, journalists cannot allow that to happen and must adhere to the highest standards of ethics and quality in their reporting, even if that means they refrain from reporting long enough to get it verifiably right.

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