May the Source Be With You, But Not Anonymously

Reporter's notebook taped shut.
Sources looking to go off the record often have little to contribute. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By Casey Bukro

After being seriously burned by false information from anonymous sources, the New York Times decided to be more cautious about accepting information from people who don’t want to be identified.

The Times issued new guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources, mandating that stories resorting to anonymity must be submitted to one of the paper’s top three editors for advance approval.

That’s a step in the right direction for a publication that long prided itself on knowing inside information, even if cloaked in anonymity.

A copy of the memo to the Times newsroom was forwarded to Politico anonymously. Hard to decide if that is ironic or hilarious.

The memo shows, among other things, that old habits at the publication known as “the Gray Lady” are hard to break. It begins by defending the use of anonymous sources as “sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.”

The memo observed that readers “routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.”

Readers can see the practice as the Times “vouching for the information unequivocally – or worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.”

It appears that the Times is finally catching up on a rule generally accepted by many professional journalists: Information is only as good as its source. Credible and identifiable sources provide reliable information, or information that can be judged for reliability.

Departing from this rule can have serious consequences, as the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out. In several opinion page articles, she described how reliance on anonymous sources led to “two major front-page errors in a six-month period.”

One alleged a Justice Department criminal investigation against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which Sullivan called “fraught with inaccuracies.” The other involved jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. The mass shooting killed 14 people and injured 22.

Too many Times articles rely on anonymous government sources, Sullivan wrote in December, 2015. She called for “systemic change” at The Times. “The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan’s stand arguably led to the Times’s new policies on anonymous sources.

“Here’s my take,” she wrote about the new policies, which might be described as adding another administrative layer to the issue. “This is a sensible, moderate and necessary plan,” she wrote. “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.'”

The memo to the Times news staff was signed by Dean Banquet, executive editor, Matt Purdy, a deputy executive editor, and Philip Corbett, standards editor.

Clearly struggling to strike some kind of balance, the editors wrote:

“We recognize that in today’s hypercompetitive news environment, the tighter guidelines below inevitably mean that we will occasionally be beaten on a story. We have no intention of reducing our urgency in getting news to our readers. But we are prepared to pay the price of losing an occasional scoop in order to protect our precious credibility.”

A scoop? What a quaint, archaic concept. One that is left over from “The Front Page” era, when people went to their corner newsstands for a copy of the daily newspaper. “The Front Page” was a 1928 hit Broadway comedy written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur about rollicking Chicago journalism in the age of bootleg booze and flappers.

The big thinkers at the New York Times appear to be stuck in a time warp, forgetting that we are in a different era.

Journalism is a public service, not a race to the finish line. Who can tell who is “first” with a story in the swamp of information that is the Internet? More important now is being accurate and credible every minute, every hour and every day. Where does a scoop fall on that scale?

Despite all the talk about the digital era, journalism is still laden with habits as destructive as the failed business model that led to the demise of many newspapers. Unnamed sources is one of them.

Some young reporters still consider it a rite of passage to refer to “informed sources” in their stories, as though it is a status symbol and they have reached a lofty level of insider knowledge. It is a journalistic disease especially rampant in reporting Washington government and political news.

Why would anyone take the word of a person who refuses to be identified? Washington reporters and editors are gullible enough to do that, defending the practice by saying everyone else does it.  And sometimes journalists are used, knowingly or unknowingly, while currying favor with the powerful who have their own agendas.

Who gets left holding the bag when information gained anonymously turns wrong? The news media.

Reporters covering science, medicine, environment, finance and technology typically name their sources of information. It would be ludicrous, for example, for a medical writer to report a major breakthrough without naming the source and reliability of the information. Who says so?

The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code says: “Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”

The next attack against taking information from anonymous sources in Washington should be aimed at the backgrounder, where government officials give information “off the record.” Again, media officials say they do it because everyone else does it. Otherwise, they would be shut out. The NYT guidelines do no appear to address backgrounders, a scourge upon free flow of information from government.

But anyone who has participated in these briefings know many are a joke. People usually know or can infer the source. And often the information is so general or trivial that it is useless. It is of little or questionable public interest.

It is an exercise in governmental butt-covering, or of government officials so timid that they are afraid to be held accountable for anything they say.

Journalists should not be so easily led by a government that increasingly wants to act in secrecy, with their messages tightly controlled by a select few. Freedom of speech appears to be vanishing among knowledgable government staff members who are forbidden to speak to the media.

Reporters should take a stand and push their sources to speak on the record, which I did as an environment writer for the Chicago Tribune. I usually refused off-the-record comments, especially since my beat involved public health. People were entitled to know the sources of information that could impact their lives.

In one of my memorable cases, a Washington bureaucrat came to my newsroom in Chicago to brief me. After we were seated, he announced that it was an off-the-record backgrounder.

No dice. I told him that I don’t take information off-the-record, and he could go back to Washington. The expression on his face was priceless, which is one of the reasons I remember the incident so clearly. Of course, his job was to give the information he came to give. So he agreed to go on the record.

As I recall, the information was not very useful. I knew from experience that top officials usually want the privilege of announcing major news. They leave the small stuff to others. So my rule was no off-the-record information, unless somebody’s life or job was in jeopardy.

Too often, once a reporter agrees to accepting information off the record, he discovers that he already knows it, or could have gotten the information on the record from another source. It boils down to knowing your beat and having trusted contacts of your own. And it involves trusting yourself enough to refuse to play the games bureaucrats play.

Politicians, on the other hand, can be self-serving and deceptive.

Journalists in the cyber age should act as though they know that, and rein in reporting practices from another era. This is an opportunity to develop new practices that fit the times and the technology with which we work.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

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