The Best Solution is not Perfect
Hawaii Business magazine's policy on anonymous sources
As editor of this magazine, my greatest obligation is to stimulate a discussion about big economic issues in Hawaii and how local businesses can succeed. I am honored to have that duty.
The discussion begins with the magazine’s stories, with our writers tapping a broad range of sources to create their articles. The conversation continues when you read the stories and talk about the issues with colleagues, friends and family.
Other times, the dialogue is merely in your head, as you wrestle with differing viewpoints and try to figure out the best path forward for your company or for Hawaii. I hope that, more often than not, your inner voice says, “I learned something useful and interesting” from the articles rather than “Petranik is an idiot.” But either way there’s a dialogue.
Letters and e-mails to the editor and comments on our website add to the conversation and I welcome those.
But what about people who don’t want to use their real names? Should they be allowed to contribute their voices to our stories and to our Feedback page? We’ve been wrestling with that issue in the news business for decades, and the debate at Hawaii Business and in my head has been very intense lately.
The article about late government payments on page 62 intensified this internal debate. I felt late payments were an important issue that needed to be explored, but few of our sources were willing to speak on the record. So we made careful use of anonymous sources using the rules I outline in the box on this page.
I wish there was the perfect answer to the question of anonymous sources, but I haven’t found one. Instead, I offer what I think is the best solution possible. While not ideal, I think some anonymity – in specific contexts and under certain rules – is the best way to report on important issues, stimulate discussion, and help Hawaii and its businesses move forward.
Anonymous Sources in Our Stories
Hawaii Business prefers to use on-the-record information in all its stories and we will make every effort to get our sources on the record. If you know who we are quoting, you can better judge the veracity of what we report.
But, sometimes, the only way to fully tell an important story is to use anonymous sources. People, especially in a close-knit community like Hawaii, are often reluctant to discuss important but controversial issues on the record. They worry about retaliation or about damaging relationships. Businesspeople, our main sources, often fear that they will lose contracts and customers if they speak openly.
Important stories need to be told, even if we have to rely on anonymous sources. To help us decide when to use anonymous sources in our stories, Hawaii Business has set these guidelines:
1. The issue should be of major importance.
2. The information from anonymous sources cannot be obtained in other ways, or is necessary to reinforce and explain on-the-record information.
3. The anonymous sources are in a good position to provide credible information.
4. The information from anonymous sources can be corroborated with other sources, either on the record or off.
5. The sources have a legitimate fear of retaliation or similar consequences if they go on the record.
6. The off-the-record information avoids personal attacks on people or companies.
Hawaii Business prefers that letters to the editor and comments on our website be signed with the author’s real name. However, almost all the comments we receive on our website are from people using pseudonyms. We welcome civil feedback and will consider all letters, e-mails and online comments for inclusion on our Feedback page. However, we will not allow anonymous personal attacks on individuals or companies on that page and will delete them from our website as soon as we become aware of them.
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