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Exploring the issues with anonymous sources


Students will examine the positive and negative potential in the use of anonymous sources, participate in activities examining the roles of anonymous sources and develop policies to guide their future use in local student media. Especially in scholastic media – print and digital – student journalists need to consider the plusses and minuses of their choices, evaluating each as they design policies for each of their student publications. These are more than issues of information gathering and presentation, but involve the highest levels of critical thinking and civic engagement. Anticipating and handling them require attention to a range of journalistic and ethical principles.


  • Students will explore the use of anonymous sources.
  • Students will analyze the use of anonymous sources.
  • Students will learn about the Watergate coverage and its use of anonymous sources.
  • Students will develop a student media policy addressing anonymous sources.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.                               


200 minutes (4 50-minutes classes)


Article: Anonymous sources

Handout: Anonymous sources scenarios

Handout: Handout 1

Answer key: Anonymous sources scenarios

Rubric: Anonymous sources

Press Rights Minute #26: Unnamed Sources

Photocopies of policies for Day 4

Assigned reading prior to class

Article: Anonymous sources: This article by H.L. Hall should help guide your discussion.

Lesson step-by-step

Day 1

1. Introduction — 15 minutes

Teacher first play the Press Rights Minute #26: Unnamed Sources. Ask students how this might relate to commercial media.

Follow this short discussion with information concerning Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s use of anonymous sources when covering Watergate.

During this, raise the issue of anonymous sources by discussing with students the ethical, legal and journalistic issues and principles of one or more situations in which journalists had to decide whether to use anonymous sources. If possible, use an example from current media.

Teachers should model the discussion by using both Watergate and Handout 1. (If you need a primer on Watergate, a quick Internet search can provide vast information on the subject.)

For any journalist, the use of anonymous sources creates a true predicament — one in which the newspaper’s credibility is on the line, and the reporter takes full responsibility for the authenticity and accuracy of whatever the anonymous source says. This is a difficult and precarious situation to be in, and it is one all student publications should enter knowing the possibilities.

2. Groups — 20 minutes

In small groups and using scenarios provided, students should discuss the issues from Handout 1 for the rest of the class period, trying to reach a decision in the group. Each group will note its answers and rationale for the next day’s discussion. Each group should prepare a short large-group presentation on their decision.

3. Group scenario presentation — 15 minutes

Each group should discuss their scenario and decision. Keep these scenarios.

4. Homework

Have students research these articles. They should be ready to discuss these situations in the next class period after they present in groups. Did the resources change their minds or raise other considerations?


For homework, give students the choice of the following resources:

• Anonymous sources:

Anonymous sources-SPJ

• NPR anonymous sourcing guidelines:

Anonymous sources-NPR

• SPJ ethics committee position papers on anonymous sources:

SPJ-committee position

• Anonymous sources (multiple posts):

JEA SPRC articles

• Creating ethical bridges from journalism to digital news:

Nieman Center Report

Additional resources for Day 1

• A current news event or issue

• A brief look at Watergate

• Examine this article’s use of sources:

• Examine an article of your finding that used anonymous sources.

Day 2

1. Group review — 10 minutes

Students should take a few minutes to review what they discussed from the previous lesson and what they picked as homework to read. Students should report back to the group on homework content.

2. Group presentations — 35 minutes

Students should present their discussion points and decisions to the large group. Other students should ask questions as they arise.

3. Exit slips — 5 minutes

Students should pick one situation in which they disagreed with the decision of the group. Ask students to write why they disagree with this decision on an exit slip.

This part of the activity is primarily for discussion of each group’s small group decisions, first, and then for additional discussion on additional issues the resources presented.

Day 3

1. Preparation — 5 minutes

Students will begin to assemble arguments for and against use of anonymous sources.

Split the class into two. You could ask students to pick a side (either pro or anti anonymous sources) and allocate the remainder students so the class is in two even groups.

2. Debate preparation — 10 minutes

Students should then be given 10 minutes to prepare for a debate on either inclusion or exclusion of anonymous sources.

3. Debate — 20

Have students have an informal debate about the pros and cons of anonymous sources.

4. Policy crafting — 15 minutes

Students should use the last 15 minutes to craft a student media policy concerning anonymous sources in groups of four. Teacher should collect these as students leave.

Day 4


Teacher needs to make enough photocopies so each group has a copy of each policy turned in the previous day.

1. Reassemble groups — 5 minutes

Student groups should review their policy crafted from the previous day. Teacher should pass out the policies making sure each group gets a copy of each policy.

2. Group work — 15 minutes

Students should read through the other groups’ policies and revisit the Handout 1 from two class periods. (Teacher may want to have some additional handouts for those who don’t have theirs anymore.)

3. Question to groups — 10 minutes

Each group should then read its policy as originally crafted. Students should ask each group questions about why the group members chose the position or wording for the policy.

4. Revising — 15 minutes

Groups should discuss and revise their student media policy after class discussion.

5. Policy turn in — 5 minutes

Students should turn in the policy to the teacher.


Students might also examine policies of commercial media or student media in making their decisions in using anonymous sources. How would the students’ policy play out in this case?

Resources for anonymous sources

• Welcome to the sausage factory:

• Anonymous sources:

• NPR anonymous sourcing guidelines:

• SPJ ethics committee position papers on anonymous sources:

• Are you really willing to go to jail over your anonymous source?:

• Talk to the newsroom: the use of anonymous sources:

• Anonymous sources (multiple posts):

• Confidential source controversy and more:

• Creating ethical bridges from journalism to digital news:–Digital-News.aspx

Numerous additional resources exist simply by searching “use of anonymous sources” including pros and cons from major media outlets.