A memo went out to New York Times staffers on Wednesday, reminding them of the hazards of anonymous sourcing. The memo was issued by Times standards editor Phil Corbett. An excerpt:
Pat, formulaic expressions of why an anonymous source wants to be anonymous are probably worse than no explanation at all. They are uninformative and give readers the impression that our anonymity rules are on autopilot.
Saying that a source insisted on anonymity because he was “not authorized” to speak is usually stating the obvious, and is of little or no help to a reader. Yet we’ve used that formulation nearly 300 times in the past year.
Let’s stop using such rote formulas as “because he/she was not authorized to speak …” or “because of the sensitivity of the issue.”
The memo suggests that, “in lieu of such boilerplate,” writers take the opportunity to say something more descriptive whenever possible:
When warranted, a thoughtful sentence or paragraph, describing the pressures or concerns of the people involved in a situation, may give readers greater insight than a terse phrase. In other cases, a shorter explanation may be useful, but only if it conveys some real information. Here are some examples that would be enlightening and worth including:
- “out of fear for his safety.”
- “out of fear of retaliation from X.”
- “because parties to the negotiations had promised to keep them confidential.”
- “because the company has threatened to fire workers who speak to the press.”
- “because Politician X insists that his aides not speak to reporters.”
- “to avoid antagonizing Official X.”
- “because disclosing grand jury testimony can be illegal.”
Of course, in all cases we must take care not to inadvertently violate the agreement to protect a source’s identity.
If the reason for anonymity is obvious, or we can’t shed any light beyond the fact that the source is unwilling to be named, we should simply describe the source as clearly as we can and leave it at that.
The memo goes on to remind staffers of the convention of informing at least one editor of the identity of their anonymous sources, and to always keep in mind the sources’ possible biases and motivations. Then Corbett finishes strong:
A final reminder, on the most basic point. While anonymous sources are sometimes crucial to our journalism, every time we rely on anonymity, we put some strain on our credibility with readers. As all our guidelines emphasize, we should resort to anonymous sources only for newsworthy information that we can’t report any other way. Anonymity should not be invoked for trivial, obvious or tangential information, or for quotes that add little of substance. And it should not be used as a mask for personal attacks.
The memo was leaked (anonymously, ha) to Gawker, and is available in its entirety there.Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner