Want to know how to evaluate the memo alleging Trump is run by the Russians, and that they have video of him and his golden showers? I can tell you. Read.
The use of anonymous sources was once a major line for a journalist to cross.
By not naming a source, the journalist insists you trust them. Did they talk to an intern or a policymaker? Every source has an agenda; if we don’t know the source we have no idea of the agenda. Was the journalist trying to act carefully, but was fooled themselves? Remember the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, and the way the press facilitated that via articles based on unnamed sources we now know were Bush administration officials with fake tales of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Anonymous sources have their place. With Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post tried to use his information as a tool to work backwards to verifiable truths, or to allow them to reach people who would go on the record. Part of Edward Snowden’s credibility came from his named status.
2016: New Rules
The 2016 election appears to have changed the rules. Writers seem to be able to publish potentially game-changing stories based only on unnamed sources, with little or no collaborating evidence other than “it might be true.” And how can one refute an anonymous source presenting unique information, say something pulled from a highly classified document the public may never see? Adding to the question of credibility, the stories often track the writer’s political stance.
Many readers feel they have only two options: take the writer’s word for it, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, then left like online roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news.
Thinking Like a Spy
So how do readers try to reasonably exercise some healthy skepticism and critical thought? One way is to apply tests intelligence officers follow to help them evaluate their own sources.
- Is the source in a position to know what they say they know? Someone in Human Resources who says a guy in the Analysis section is underpaid and vulnerable to recruitment, yep. Someone in Human Resources who says they have the embassy’s economic predictions for Country X for next year, hmmm. One of the ways Snowden’s critics sought to discredit him was to claim he could not have had access to the information he released (and so it must be fake.) When this idea is worked backwards – you are out looking for a source on some subject – it is known as spotting.
- The “position to know” idea scales up sharply when a source says they are privy to conversations well-above their pay grade; how would they know the contents of a call the president made? Anyone who claims to know the why behind some action, what was in the heads of the decision makers, is subject to special skepticism. Overall, the further away from probability – plausibility – a story stretches, the more obligation on the intelligence officer to address those questions.
- All sources have agendas. Human nature being what it is, sources who just want to do the right thing need to be looked at more closely. The source is risking something by talking, maybe even jail; why? Is what they will get out of the leak worth the risk they are assuming? And if you don’t know your source’s agenda – what they want – then you’re like the guy at the poker table who can’t tell who the rube is.
- An intelligence officer needs to constantly ask themselves if they are being used, offered fake information for some purpose. How can they tell? What can the source offer that is verifiable? If they say they work directly for the ambassador, can they pass on a few internal phone numbers you can call anonymously?
- Presumably if you are looking into a topic, and your source claims to have information, do they otherwise seem to know at least as much as you know? And if you’re being leaked to on a topic you know little about, why are they coming to you anyway? Is what you are being told consistent with other information on the subject? Is the information something that follows from known things, something known as expectability? Has the source reported reliably in the past, or have they been referred to you by someone who has?
- Does what is being handed to you fit the “is the juice worth the squeeze,” risk versus gain, test? For example, a source claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his car. Would a candidate risk news that he ordered a beating of a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket?
“It Might Be True”
While anything can have an explanation, “it might be true” or “you can’t prove it’s not true” are enablers of fake news. Instead, readers should apply some of the tests an intelligence officer might: who would know the information? How could someone know? How big a risk would that source be taking and why would take it? What agenda might the source and/or writer have? How plausible is what you’re reading, is the juice worth the squeeze?
In the end, an intelligence officer rarely knows what is 100% true, so they assign a rating to information, such as high confidence, or medium confidence, and act on the information (or not) in line with that.
A reader can never know with certainty the truth about an anonymously-sourced story. Anything is possible, but only some things are probable, and that’s usually the way you bet when you’re making up your mind whether to believe something in the media or not.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.