Sources: The Difference Between Confidential And Anonymous

I got anonymous “Concerned Citizen” messages when I was a reporter or editor.

I usually tossed them into the trash bin. I did honor requests to keep someone’s name confidential, but I always knew who the person was before I acted on his or her supposed “information.”

There are differences between “anonymous sources” and “confidential sources.” Along with most reporters and editors, I used confidential sources, sometimes in ways that made life better for a lot of people. These days, I leave that stuff to working journalists. Me, I’m a retiree who writes.

But “anonymous” sources? Bah. Most of the ones I encountered were self-serving demagogues, the equivalents of today’s internet trolls, intent on destroying someone else’s reputation at little or no risk to them.

What is the difference between “anonymous sources” and “confidential sources”? Don’t feel alone. Before I became immersed in the news business, I didn’t understand them, either.

An anonymous source is a secret.

A confidential source says to me, “I want you to keep my identity a secret if I give you some information.” From the get-go, I know the person’s name, address and connection, if any, to the information.

I might respond, “No. If you’re going to accuse someone of misconduct, most of the time, you are going to stand up and do it on the record, or else go talk to some other reporter.”

But sometimes the importance of the information and the likelihood of harm to someone from exposure dictated that I negotiate.

There are degrees of confidentiality.

The least sweeping is, “I won’t print your name.” I can tell other people your name, though I won’t use it in an actual news story. I would cross-check the first source’s claim with another uninvolved person whose judgment I have learned to trust. Lawyers not involved in the case at hand come to mind. “What can you tell me about the information or about Joe Sixpack?”

I won’t reveal that source’s name to the person who is the target of the usually derogatory information. I will tell my boss; after all, it’s his or her neck on the line along with mine.

I never granted, “I won’t tell anybody.”

Not tell anybody? Not even if a judge says, “Young man, you are going to jail for contempt of court, and you will rot there for months unless you tell this court who gave you that information”?

Nope. Protecting your sorry behind might not be worth my going to prison and losing my job, my family and probably all my life savings. In extreme cases, that can be the trade-off.

I might say, “OK, I’ll keep your name quiet — but if a judge orders me to talk or else go to jail, you might lose!” Most people understood that and accepted it.

What prompts this trip down journalistic memory lane?

“Concerned citizen” has claimed anonymously that there is financial wrongdoing within the City of DuBois and within the Greater DuBois United Way, both of which are led by John “Herm” Suplizio, who — just by coincidence, of course — is seeking to become this area’s next state senator in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

I have known Herm for 30 years. He has always been honest and open with me. But I am not naive enough to assume that Herm, or any other public figure, is always above reproach. A half-century in journalism will make a cynic out of almost anybody. So, Herm, old buddy, I can’t say that those claims of dishonesty are false, are true, or anywhere in between. I live a half-hour outside DuBois. I no longer make city politics my business. So I just do not know, and I refuse to “assume” when someone’s reputation is at stake.

My opinion of “Concerned Citizen” ranks down there with my opinion of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Both were Presidents. Both tried to smear other people (Nixon) or hide behind other people (Clinton).

There is a word for that: “Despicable.”

Some people whine, “Oh, but I am afraid of retaliation!”


Where would we be if the Americans on Breed’s (Bunker) Hill in 1776, watching the British troops racing toward them and knowing that most deaths in close combat in those days were caused by being gutted by bayonet, had said, “I am afraid of retaliation!” and run away?

Substitute any other situation where people who stand up for what is right do so at some risk. Our country, our city, and our community … these are worth taking risks to protect by criticizing openly.

The Sixth Amendment to the American Constitution says clearly that even crooks have the right to face their accusers in public.

Some accusers, it seems to me, are not very American.

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.


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