Off the record, a source said; a senior government official said on background; according to an insider. How important are anonymous sources in reporting? Overuse or misuse can hurt credibility, but you need those insider voices for many stories to get beyond the press releases and speeches.

They are crucial when the news can’t be told without those who fear retribution or job loss, but shouldn’t be used for personal opinions or by decision-makers who are shirking responsibility.

There have been a few examples in the past weeks in The Globe and Mail, both good and bad. The profiles of the eight men, victims of an alleged serial killer, could not be told without hearing from friends and family members, some of whom were not named. The investigation into allegations of unwanted sexual contact by winemaker Norman Hardie couldn’t be fully told without the off-the-record information from many of the 50 people interviewed. In both cases, these articles used some key sources on the record as well.

One reporter here calls it triangulation: using public documents, on-the-record interviews and not-for-attribution interviews to get the most complete story. Any major investigative piece relies on all three and might use anonymous sources for the initial tip or to add details and confirmation to what the on-the-record people say.

During the start of the tariff and trade skirmish, I saw another good example of using such sources.

Continue reading this on the Globe and Mail website, where it was first published. 

Sylvia Stead is the Public Editor of the Globe and Mail.