FLASHBACK: The New York Times ‘Tightening the Screws on Anonymous Sources’

Original article by Margaret Sullivan of The New York Times • March 15, 2016

After two major front-page errors in a six-month period, Times editors are cracking down on the use of anonymous sources.

An email to the newsroom Tuesday morning from Dean Baquet, the executive editor, Matt Purdy, a deputy executive editor, and Philip Corbett, the standards editor, said, in part:

At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism – and it has turned out to be wrong.

Although the policy does not ban anonymity, it is intended to significantly reduce what Mr. Purdy characterized as an overreliance on unnamed sources.

The policy, several months in the making, is the result of newsroom leaders consulting with “a number of our most experienced reporters and editors,” the email said.

It requires one of three top editors to review and sign off on articles that depend primarily on information from unnamed sources – particularly those that “hinge on a central fact” from such a source, Mr. Purdy told me last week in an interview. The editors are Mr. Baquet, Mr. Purdy, and Susan Chira, another deputy executive editor.

Those stories, Mr. Purdy said, are potential “journalistic I.E.D.s.” In other words, they may be bombs that explode unexpectedly and damage The Times and its credibility. Given that, they require special oversight, and a process that may result in slowing down before publishing.

The policy also requires any other use of anonymous sources to be approved by a desk head – for example, the ranking culture, metro or international editor – or that person’s immediate deputy. It also “underscores what has been our policy”: that an editor must know the identity of an unnamed source.

The new policy also aims to significantly “ratchet down the use of anonymous quotation,” Mr. Purdy said. It would make such quotation relatively rare. Too often, he said, such direct quotations allow sources to express “their impression, their spin, their agenda” without accountability. And, he said, they don’t allow readers to evaluate motive because they don’t know where the information is coming from.

Here’s my take: This is a sensible, moderate and necessary plan. The devil, of course, is in the enforcement. The Times often has not done an effective job of carrying out the policy it already has, one element of which states that anonymous sources may be used only as “a last resort.”

I asked Mr. Purdy why readers should believe this new policy will be followed – especially in the long run once the novelty wears off.

“It’s on us to take it seriously,” he said. All senior editors are in agreement about its importance, he said. In addition, the policy also gives important power to line editors and web producers to push back: “Slot editors, copy editors and producers should not publish a story with any anonymous sourcing that does not have a note indicating that the department head or deputy has approved the sourcing.”

Parts of the policy have been in practice informally over the past few weeks, and the early results are promising, Mr. Purdy said. In one case, he said, he refused to publish an article that featured many anonymous quotations; ultimately, those involved were able to persuade a number of sources to put their comments on the record. That made for a stronger, more airtight article, he said.

I’m not in favor of banning anonymous sources, although I’ve written repeatedly about their overuse. Many important stories – some of the most important, in fact – could never have been written if their sources had not been kept confidential. Reporters risk a lot to protect those sources, and they need to be able to do so.

But there’s a big difference between, for example, a national security article that simply can’t be written with on-the-record sources and the other kinds of anonymity one often sees. That latter category includes allowing unnamed government officials to use the press as a megaphone, to float politically sensitive trial balloons, or to disparage their enemies without accountability.

In short, not much rises anywhere near the level of Watergate or an exposé about warrantless government eavesdropping.

“This is about protecting our integrity with our readers, which is the greatest asset we have,” Mr. Purdy said. He’s right. Here’s hoping this reform makes a real and enduring difference for Times readers.

Departments should set up regular procedures to make sure this rule is followed consistently.

Read more at The New York Times