Opinion

Jack Shafer

If you must quote anonymous sources, make sure they say something!

By Jack Shafer
August 14, 2014

A decade ago, both the Washington Post and the New York Times conceded that they had lost control of the use of anonymous sources in their pages and each set up new guidelines to police the practice.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. promised in a 2004 piece that his paper would “explain to readers why a source was not being named” inside stories, and the Times similarly resolved to tame the anonymous monster.

Both efforts ran out of steam before they even reached pressure, as I and Erik Wemple (then at Washington City Paper) gloated. Ever since, Post ombudsmen (Deborah Howell and Andrew Alexander) and Times public editors (Daniel Okrent, Clark Hoyt and Byron Calame) have rebuked their respective papers for the unchecked use of anonymous sources, but to little avail. The Post no longer employs an ombudsman to wrangle the anonymice scurrying through coverage. The Times‘ current press cop, Margaret Sullivan, still walks the beat with her AnonyWatch feature, which highlights “the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in the Times.” She swings a mean stick, but nobody packs sufficient wood to regulate anonymous sources, as a review of the past week’s coverage in the Times and Post indicates.

The Times has cited anonymous sources in at least 25 stories in the past seven days. Behind the scenes, labored negotiations may be governing who gets to speak anonymously in the paper, but from the outside it looks like the Times will give you a mask if you simply ask. In an Aug 5 story about the multi-million dollar deals the stars of The Big Bang Theory just won, the Times attributes its information about the deals to “people with knowledge of the outcome, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private.”

Are not most financial negotiations private, or have I missed public ones conducted at the Hollywood Bowl between stars and producers? By applying such low standards to sourcing, the Times essentially places a placard in its window announcing its availability to any source who wants to anonymously spill details about negotiations. I’m not such a sourcing absolutist that I rule out all anonymity. But if the Times is going to be pliant, at least it can be honest about its pliancy, rephrasing its justification to say, “the sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Times always rolls over for them in stories like these.”

An Aug 13 Times piece noted that U.S. administration officials “spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.” This justification has become so popular in modern journalism that when you drop it into Nexis, the database burps and informs you that the query will return more than 3,000 stories containing the passage or something very close to it.

If a lower anonymity bar than “was not authorized to speak publicly” exists, I cannot imagine it. Very few people are authorized to speak publicly in government, corporations, and institutions. Does that mean that anybody who has accepted a muzzle can expect anonymity from the press? The huge numbers coughed up by Nexis support that notion.

Another anonymity justification that rattles Nexis’ foundations is the source who “spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.” On Aug. 12, the sensitive-topic source was an Iraqi official speaking the Washington Post. And what sort irreplaceable information did the official impart? “We are entering a potential clash. … On the ground, [there are] tanks and armored vehicles. It’s a very complicated situation with the army.” Yes, yes, tanks, armored vehicles, and a complication situation! Very sensitive information. For giving the paper these gems, the source deserves placement in the Post‘s witness protection program.

Limboing lower still is this Aug. 13 Post story that bestows blanket anonymity on the British prime minister’s office, in which a spokesman speaks “on the usual condition of anonymity.” Once the justification for anonymity becomes “usual,” shouldn’t editors simply surrender and redact the justification as redundant? The Times takes a similar flop in an Aug. 12 article in which a “second Pentagon official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.”

Sometimes when the logic behind granting anonymity isn’t too broad, it’s wildly illogical. In an Aug. 13 story about the Robin Williams suicide, the Times reported:

‘Robin was always 1,000 percent reliable,’ said a senior movie agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity to conform to the wishes of Mr. Williams’s family. ‘He was almost impossibly high functioning.’

Just a minute! As I read it, the Williams family requested privacy in their time of grief, not anonymity for sources who knew him and wanted to talk to the press. The Times may have good reasons for giving the senior movie agent (don’t you love the title inflation?) anonymity, but conforming to the wishes of the Williams family isn’t one of them.

Obviously, some sources need anonymity, such as the Rikers Island social worker who fears retribution from correction officials, and other whistleblowers. But over the past week, there have been very few such anonymous daredevils in the Times and the Post. Mostly it’s U.S. government officials, foreign officials, and other insiders buttering reporters’ copy with inside spin. When not spinning, they’re often deploying trial balloons.

Sometimes, granting anonymity is the only way to get the story, and the compromise is acceptable, even when no whistles are blown. For an Aug. 6 story about picking the next Major League Baseball commissioner, the Times confided that anonymity was given to several team owners “and others” because the current commissioner had gagged them.

Not a perfect solution, but as I said, I’m not an absolutist about anonymous sources. At least the reader has a general idea of the anonymice’s identities, and can place the comments in context, something he can’t do when fed self-serving statements from nameless officials.

I hope to return to this topic soon, examining the blind-source practices of other outlets, including my own. Until then, let me point you to an authoritative journalistic source, which has recorded some of the best policies on publishing anonymous sources. “Anonymity is a last resort,” it states, “rote phrases offer the reader no help,” and “Anonymity should not shield a press officer whose job is to be publicly accountable.”

You can find this and more on Page 22 of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.

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I first encountered the Page 22 quotations thanks to a column by @Sulliview. Send your on-the-record emails to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed is ghosted by faceless State Department officials. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A newspaper box outside the Watergate complex offers copies of the Washington Post for sale in Washington August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 

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