Recasting the Anonymous Source as ‘Exceptional Event’
Two days after the public editor of The New York Times critiqued the paper's use of anonymous sources, the Times published a couple of stories (with anonymous sources) that illuminated the issue for me in ways I didn't expect.
In his June 13 column, Public Editor Daniel Okrent proposed turning the use of anonymous sources into an exceptional event. Not a new idea, certainly, but a good one. What would it take to make it happen?
As Okrent points out, the use of anonymous sources is a complex issue. It will take some chipping away at, one dimension at a time.
Here are some dimensions to consider:
- If the news in a story stands up without anonymous sources, resist the urge to add them for background or color.
- If you can support part but not all of a story without anonymous sources, go with the more limited version. If you think the story can be marginally improved by using anonymous sources, in other words, think again. As Gene Roberts likes to say, many stories ooze rather than break. And a string of thoroughly-sourced stories that ooze over time -- with one fully-sourced story after another chipping away at the truth -- can serve readers better than a one-shot story that breaks with great fanfare and relies on anonymous sources.
- If the only way to get an important story published is to rely on anonymous sources, do it. But do it in a way that recognizes reader skepticism and facilitates ongoing scrutiny of the anonymously-sourced material.
While acknowledging the need for unnamed sources in a number of circumstances, Okrent suggested that the price for killing many of them is hardly high. He documented some of the news reported anonymously in the previous Tuesday's Times, and came up with such not-for-attribution bombshells as Barbra Streisand's expectation that hoteliers "scatter rose petals in her bathroom."
I took a look at the Times published the next Tuesday (June 15), and found a half-dozen uses of anonymous sources -- none of them as frivolous as the examples unearthed by Okrent the week before.
What I discovered instead -- in two stories in particular -- were some paths to pursue (and avoid) on the way to transforming the anonymous source from routine tool to exceptional event. While focused on Times stories, the issues apply broadly.
The first story, written by Barry Meier and published beneath a three-column headline above fold on Page One, made me suspicious in the lead but satisfied me in the end. The story reports: "An organization of top medical journals is considering a proposal that would require drug makers to register clinical trials at their start in a public database in order for results, whether successful or not, to be later considered for publication, three people working with the group said."
Readers never learn the names of the three sources describing the proposal, not even an indication of where they stand on the issue or the role they're playing in the discussions.
By the time I finished the story, though, I was surprised to find myself thinking I'd just found a good example of anonymous sources used mostly the way they should be.
For starters, Meier explained why the sources sought anonymity: "because, they said, the proposal was still under discussion and because the group was not planning to announce any change unless it was adopted."
Secondly, the anonymous sources provided information as opposed to opinion. It's true that nobody has confirmed, on the record, that the proposal is even under discussion. But unlike anonymous opinion, anonymously-sourced information is something that other participants in the discussions can actually confirm or refute.
Another story published June 15 used anonymous opinion in a way that prompted me to e-mail the reporter and Allan M. Siegal, standards editor at the Times, with some questions. (Responses below.)
The story ran pretty far back in the A-Section, on Page A-17: an intriguing Political Memo piece from Times Washington correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg about the eulogy delivered by President Reagan's son, Ron.
I didn't see the TV coverage of his remarks and missed the ensuing Internet chatter, so this story was the first I'd heard that the younger Mr. Reagan had apparently taken a swipe at President Bush.
The story quotes "a friend of the Reagan family, speaking on condition of anonymity," to the effect that "Mr. Reagan, who did not return a call seeking comment on Monday, was deeply uncomfortable with the way the Bush administration intertwined religion and politics and felt compelled to say so at the burial of his father, a ceremony watched by millions."
Unreported is why the source sought anonymity, what his or her political loyalties might be, or whether he or she had actually talked with Mr. Reagan about what he said, what he meant, and why.
Further on, the story quotes "a Republican strategist who would not be identified for fear of repercussions to his business" about his interpretation of the remarks.
Unlike the Page One story about medical trials, the premise of this story did not rest on the anonymous sources. Stolberg backs up the lead and the headline ("Reaganite by Association? His Family Won't Allow It") with public statements from the family.
Perhaps in need of more support was the story's assertion that Mr. Reagan's comments had "caused jaws to drop in California and Washington." If any jaw-droppers show up in the story, on the record or off, they manage to mute their astonishment pretty thoroughly.
Late Tuesday afternoon, I sent a note to Stolberg and Siegal.
I asked Stolberg:
- Why include the two grafs from the family friend?
- Why not report whether he/she had spoken with Mr. Reagan about his remarks?
- Did the friend have direct knowledge of Mr. Reagan's thinking about the way Bush has linked religion and politics?
- Why did the friend want to remain anonymous? Why not report the reason?
- With the unnamed Republican strategist, what did his/her not-for-attribution quotes add to the story that couldn't be reflected in quotes from other Republicans willing to speak on the record?
- Could you tell me a bit about whatever conversations you had with editors about the anonymity issue on this story? Did you provide the names of the two anonymous sources to the National editor (or some other editor)? Any encouragement from editors to get the two individuals on the record? Any discussion of just dropping the stuff you got from them?
I asked Siegal:
- Was this story among the ones you spot-checked to see if an editor had been provided with names? If so, what did you discover?
- All things considered, how does this story measure up to the paper's guidelines on confidential news sources?
In a return e-mail, Stolberg thanked me for my inquiry but said she would prefer to let Times editors reply.
In an e-mail forwarded by Siegal early Friday afternoon, Times Washington Editor Rick Berke said of Stolberg's story:
"We saw it as a fine piece that no one else had. We pushed, and had hoped, for more on-the-record material, but we thought we had to use the background material to provide the best sense of the story and Reagan's motivations. We were fully satisfied with the soundness of the sources on the piece and thought Sheryl wrote a fine piece on a tight deadline."
Siegal added: "As standards editor, I would add only this: I watched the interment service on TV and was astounded by what clearly seemed to be a slap at the president in Ron Reagan's eulogy. It certainly needed to be pursued. And yes, the responsible editor knew who the sources were. I wish we had given a better sense of their reasons for withholding their names."
I appreciated the follow-up from Berke and Siegal, but their comments left me unconvinced that the use of anonymous sources improved Stolberg's story. At least in the mind of this reader, they raised more questions than they answered.
Many newsrooms have updated their ethics guidelines to require that the use of anonymous sources be accompanied by as much context about the sources as possible, including their points of view, their motives -- and an explanation of why they won't be quoted by name. More and more newsrooms are also insisting that reporters reveal the names of (and details about) their sources to their editors.
But that's not enough. Coming to grips with the depth of reader skepticism about anonymously-sourced stories will require newsrooms to subject such work to extraordinary scrutiny -- after publication as well as before.
Wouldn't it be interesting, for example, if the Times' Week in Review section included a box each week listing the major assertions based on anonymous sources from the previous seven days' news columns? A cumulative version of the box could be maintained online, providing a running tally of such stories over time. Enterprising readers -- and competing journalists -- could use the list as a guide to the ongoing scrutiny anonymous sources deserve and still don't receive.