The Public Editor: Those Persistent Anonymous Sources
By CLARK HOYT / The New York Times – March 22, 2009
THE Times has a tough policy on anonymous sources, but continues to fall down in living up to it. That’s my conclusion after scanning a sampling of articles published in all sections of the paper since the first of the year. This will not surprise the many readers who complain to me that the paper lets too many of its sources hide from public view.
• The policy says anonymous sources should be used only as “a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way.” But in an article about the decoration of New York apartment building lobbies, a woman was granted anonymity to describe a particularly edgy one as “a den of hell.” She had been visiting a friend in the building and would not give her name, the article said, “for fear of offending the hostess.”
In last Sunday’s Times, a “senior government official who was not authorized to speak on the record” denounced bonuses to A.I.G. executives as “unacceptable.” Last resort? A reader peeking over the top of the paper that day could have seen Lawrence Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, calling the bonuses “outrageous” on television.
• The policy says the newspaper will not allow personal or partisan attacks from behind a mask of anonymity. Yet an anonymous Yankees official could trash Alex Rodriguez (“His legacy, now, is gone”), and an anonymous Jets official could say that the team did not want to sign Terrell Owens because he would have poisoned it and torn up the locker room. A competitor of an Internet start-up was allowed to slam its business model without his name being attached to his belittling quotes.
• The policy says rote references to sources who “insisted on anonymity” or “demanded anonymity” should be avoided because they “offer the reader no help and make our decisions appear automatic.” Since Jan. 1, sources who “spoke on condition of anonymity” have appeared in The Times more than 240 times. Often a reason was given, but sometimes there was no explanation for why a source needed anonymity and nothing to help a reader decide how reliable the person’s information was.
A recent article about The Washington Post’s handling of the “Doonesbury” comic strip said sources at The Post asked not to be identified “for fear of appearing to embarrass a colleague.” That amused Frank Herron of Winchester, Mass. “It’s nice to see that journalists still have feelings and are sensitive to the feelings of others,” he said.
Some reasons for withholding names are understandable: a man who came upon an assault victim in Manhattan feared speaking on the record because the attacker was still free. Others are baffling: a source in an article about drug testing in baseball wanted anonymity “because he was discussing drug-testing information.”
Accepting a source’s demand for anonymity is sometimes essential to getting critical information, but editors and reporters at The Times tell me that they understand how overuse of unnamed sources can damage credibility. “Reporters really recognize, as do editors, that when you can name sources, you have a much more authoritative first draft of history than you do with one larded with anonymous sources,” said Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news.
Last year, at my request, a group of journalism students at Columbia University studied anonymous sources in The Times and concluded that their use was actually down by roughly half since a strengthened policy was adopted in 2004. But the students said the paper failed to follow its own rules for explaining them nearly 80 percent of the time. Bill Keller, the executive editor, told the newsroom that the study presented “an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves that unnamed sources are not to be used lightly, and to reiterate the rules governing their use.”
With my assistant, Michael McElroy, I took another look at the issue after The Times was burned this year by anonymous sources peddling false information about Caroline Kennedy. Given the examples we found — nonessential and even trivial information attributed to anonymous sources, personal attacks, and inadequate details about a source’s credibility — I think it is time again for a forceful rededication to the newspaper’s own standards. “We need to do better,” Keller agreed.
After reviewing some examples, Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said, “The bar should be far higher than it is before a reporter puts an anonymous quote in and before an editor lets it stay in.” Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, said he was thinking of holding a bureau meeting to discuss pushing back against the city’s prevailing culture of anonymity. “We work very hard to avoid unnecessary anonymous sources,” Baquet told me. “All that said, we can do better.”
Next week, I will deal more with the special challenges Washington presents. Getting anything to change there won’t be easy. The Obama administration, which promised new transparency in government, has fallen into old Washington ways, sometimes providing officials for comment only if they are not named and holding background briefings for large groups of reporters at which the public cannot be told who did the talking. Times journalists daily face unpleasant choices: accepting information without being able to name the source, or refusing it at the risk of shortchanging readers and seeing it reported elsewhere.
Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said the administration frequently makes officials available to speak on the record. But, in a comment revealing of the administration’s news management philosophy, he said there are times when officials will talk only anonymously so they can get into policy details, speak more candidly and “keep the emphasis on the most important name in any story, which is President Obama.”
To see how pervasive the culture of anonymity is in Washington, consider that President Obama recently walked in on his way to dinner and joined senior members of his administration who were arguing with The Times’s David Brooks about one of his columns. In Brooks’s next column, about this meeting, the most senior of all officials simply became one of “four senior members of the administration.” His cover was blown later.
I asked Brooks if he had asked the president to go on the record. He said he had not, because “I thought in those informal circumstances it would be wrong to quote him by name.” Brooks said that, as a columnist, he looks for information to shape opinions for which he takes full responsibility. He sees that as different from the role of a reporter seeking facts from identifiable sources. I understand the difference, but I would have asked.
Abramson, a former Washington bureau chief, said she thinks the city’s problems with anonymous sources are part of a “culture of hiding who is talking” that is spreading everywhere, in part because “any quote can become an Internet time bomb.”
It is spreading, it seems, even to some readers who hate anonymous sources in their newspaper. Two of them, after calling my attention to examples in this column, asked not to be identified.
The public editor can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.