Opinion: Rolling Stone and the Difficulties of Anonymous Sourcing


August 2, 2022




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(DENVER) — Rolling Stone recently published an article about former President Donald Trump and his legal team’s alleged plans to use former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows as a “fall guy” in the investigation into the riot that took place at the capitol on January 6, 2021. The article cites eight anonymous sources who are still “working in Trump’s political orbit, on his legal defense, or in Republican circles in regular contact with the ex-president.” The author noted that they granted anonymity to the sources in order for them to “speak candidly” about the matter and the ongoing investigation. While the topic is certainly one of national importance, I think the Rolling Stone story highlights the difficulties of granting anonymity to sources because it uses speculative information to draw its conclusions and fails to meet the guidelines for granting anonymity in other instances. 

It is clear that Rolling Stone misused its power to grant anonymity to at least one source it cited in the story about Meadows becoming a fall guy for Trump. In one example, one of Trump’s current legal advisors said “Mark is gonna get pulverized…and it’s really sad…Based on talking to [Meadows in the past, it felt like] he doesn’t actually believe any of this [election theft] stuff, or at least not most of it. He was obviously just trying to perform for Trump, and now he’s maybe screwed himself completely.” 

It is hard to see how including this quote in the story meets any of the criteria the Associated Press lays out for using anonymous sources. The quote is speculative and opinionated in nature since the legal advisor that offered it is not associated with Meadows’ case or his defense. The information offered could have been gleaned in another way, and it is difficult — if not impossible — to consider Trump’s legal advisor as a reliable source since they have a very clear bias in favor of their client. 

The paragraph following this quote shows that Rolling Stone could have taken more time to get similar information from a source who was willing to go on the record. The publication quotes Ty Cobb, one of Trump’s former lawyers, as saying, “I do think criminal prosecutions are possible. Possible for Trump and Meadows certainly. And for the others, including lawyers, who engaged fraudulently in formal proceedings or investigations.” The use of this quote begs the question of why Rolling Stone decided to use speculative information from an anonymous source close to Trump in the first place when it could have obtained similar information from other sources.

There are, however, two other instances where Rolling Stone might have appropriately granted anonymity to sources, which raises further questions about why it included the quote from a Trump attorney. In one instance, Rolling Stone cites “three sources familiar with the matter” when it reveals that Trump’s legal team has already considered options for insulating the former president from Meadows’ actions on January 6.

Rolling Stone also cited two anonymous sources when it reveals that Trump casually feigned ignorance of Meadows’ actions on January 6 in conversations with his “longtime associates.” Both instances are examples of how to appropriately use anonymous sources because the information gathered is directly relevant to the scope of the article, could not be gathered in another way, and came from people with direct knowledge of the information that was shared. 

Given these instances where anonymity was appropriately granted, why grant anonymity to one of Trump’s current legal advisors? One theory is that the advisor would have faced retaliation if they went on the record for the interview. This is a common reason for journalists to grant anonymity since it is their job to provide information without causing harm to their sources. 

But the information that Trump’s legal advisor provided does not rise to the level of the protections that were offered. Trump’s legal advisor was basically given room to say negative things about Meadows and his legal case. This information could have been captured from a source who was willing to go on the record. For example, Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s former advisors, has been outspoken about Meadows’ legal case and likely would have offered a similar take to Rolling Stone on the record. 

According to the Associated Press’ guidebook, anonymous sources may only be used in three specific instances. First, the material must be “vital to the report” and cannot be opinionated or speculative in nature. The reasoning for this is simple enough. If a reporter grants anonymity to a source for them to share their opinion without attaching their name to their statements, then what’s to stop others from making the same request? That could lead to news cycles that are driven by anonymity and could sow further distrust in the media, broadly speaking. 

Second, anonymous sources can only be used when the information gleaned from them cannot be obtained in another way. One famous example of this practice can be found in the Watergate investigation from the 1970s. That investigation began after an anonymous source nicknamed “Deep Throat” leaked information to The Washington Post about a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This crime had not yet been reported to the police, and there was no other way for the reporters to gain this information. 

Third, anonymous sources must be both “reliable” and “in a position to have direct knowledge of the information,” according to the AP guidebook. Again, the reasoning behind this is simple. Sources who are granted anonymity must be able to speak directly about the issue they are helping to expose or contextualize. Without this, stories citing anonymous sources would carry absolutely no authority and could rightfully be ignored by readers.

Granting anonymity to sources is one of the most important decisions a journalist and their editors can make, especially when their reporting concerns matters of national significance such as the investigation into the January 6th riot. Because of this, journalists must comport themselves with the same seriousness as the issue they are covering. I do not believe that Rolling Stone should have granted anonymity to a source to speculate about the prospects of Meadows’ legal case because the same information could have been gathered from a source on the record. Using a quote that was speculative in nature and from a source that is biased detracts from the seriousness of the January 6 investigation and Meadows’ involvement therein, while simultaneously calling into question Rolling Stone’s objectives in covering the investigation. 

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