Last fall, when Clark Hoyt, the public editor of The New York Times, spoke to Professor Richard Wald’s Critical Issues in Journalism class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he presented the idea of a research project to evaluate how closely reporters adhere to the newspaper’s anonymous-sources policy.
Drawing on his experience as a former D.C. bureau chief of Knight Ridder, Hoyt defended the need for anonymity to protect sources who, fearing reprisal, might not otherwise come forward. But Hoyt also criticized hurried reporting that abuses anonymous sourcing for the sake of the big scoop.
Anonymous sources have long served as the anchors for many investigative stories. In 2005, for instance, The Washington Post’s Josh White broke news of the possible detention of “ghost” prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Post’s coverage supplemented information from military documents, with disclosures from unnamed prison guards and “Defense Department officials,” to report on the illicit confinement of unlisted prisoners in Iraq by the American military and the CIA.
But as the public demands more transparency from the press—in part the result of string of fabrication scandals at mainstream outlets—there is heightened attention in our newsrooms to the need to provide readers with more information about sources, their identities, and motivations for speaking to reporters.
For instance, a controversial Times article about John McCain’s dealings with lobbyists, published last February, cited conversations with unnamed “former campaign associates” in raising the possibility that McCain had an affair with a female lobbyist. The story could have (and should have) rested on the evidence of possible quid pro quo deals between McCain and lobbyists, but instead the reporters overreached and undermined the credibility of the story.
The argument presented by critics of the article was that if reporters are going to introduce anonymous sources, they should better communicate why information obtained from such sources is reliable.
For the project, students used the policy outlined by Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in a memo dated February 25, 2004.
Under the new policy, if sources could not be identified by name and title, explanation must be given as to their authority, possible views and motivation, and reason for confidentiality.
Ideally, anonymity is not granted to sources making personal attacks, or to those without “firsthand knowledge” of asserted facts. And in cases where anonymous sources broached “less verifiable” facts that are potentially damaging to one side or the other, corroborating sources should be used.
Anonymous sourcing can only be used as a “last resort” on stories that are particularly newsworthy, yet sensitive, in order to protect the source and maintain the public’s trust.
We read two sets of New York Times papers: the first set of six papers was published just before Keller issued the 2004 memo, and the second set of six was published in the fall of 2007.
We agreed to define an anonymous source as one where information was attributed to someone whose identity is indiscernible to the lay reader. This includes attributions such as “sources said” or “experts said,” without further description of the speaker or the reasons for granting anonymity.
A comparison of citations found in the sample sets includes the following observations:
-79 percent of anonymous sources in post-policy sample do not meet the requirements of the 2004 memo, which was an improvement from the pre-policy set, in which 87 percent of citations were inadequate.
-Post-policy, levels of uncorroborated anonymous sources went up by 7 percent.
-42 percent of anonymous source citations in the post-policy sample were used to present opinions versus statements of fact—up from 38% in the pre-policy sample.
-Daily average use of anonymous sources was cut by half after the 2004 memo was implemented.
-Anonymous sources were less likely to appear on the front page of the in the 2007 sample.
We presented our findings to top editors at the Times, including Hoyt, Bill Keller, and Craig Whitney, the paper’s standards editor. Keller noted that he would be “more likely to use examples than the metrics,” underscoring the difficulty of assessing progress on such a subjective issue and the importance of remaining flexible in judging the merits of when and how to use anonymous sources.