Glenn Greenwald (Salon, 1/12/10) makes an excellent point about the corrosive effect of the widespread use of anonymous sourcing by the most powerful U.S. news outlets. After listing a number of false stories that got prominent coverage in U.S. media, Greenwald writes:
Unjustified anonymity–especially when mindlessly repeating what shielded government sources claim in secret–is the single greatest enabler of false and deceitful"reporting."… None of the falsehoods documented here will ever lead to any accountability, because the identity of the falsehood-producers will be shielded by their loyal journalist-servants, and the journalists themselves will simply claim that they wrote what they did because their hidden sources told them to. That's not only the effect, but the intent, of the central method of American journalism: to disseminate outright falsehoods to the American public and ensure that neither the liars nor their loyal message-carriers ever face any consequences or even reputational loss…. Lying is so much easier–and thus so much more common–when you get to do it while remaining hidden.
Greenwald complains that reporters who quote anonymous sources "barely even bother any longer to explain why it's justified, notwithstanding numerous policies of media outlets requiring exactly that explanation." Actually, though, such policies are generally taken to mean that the news outlet should explain why the source wanted to be anonymous–an explanation that generally boils down to the idea that the source wasn't authorized to speak on the record. That's fairly useless.
A potentially more helpful rule would require the news outlet to explain, every time it quoted an unnamed source, why this particular quotation deserved to be an exception to the general rule that anonymity is to be avoided. Such a rule might actually discourage some of the more pernicious examples of anonymity–or at least produce some revealing rationalizations.