J-profs: WP publishes opinions from anonymous sources

Romenesko Letters

Earlier today I posted the AP's Statement on News Values and Principles, which bans publication of opinion and speculation from anonymous sources. I asked if my memo-leaker was correct about the Washington Post and New York Times not having that rule. Responses from NYU journalism professors Jay Rosen and Adam Penenberg are after the jump.

From ADAM PENENBERG: You asked if the Washington's Post's standards allow anonymous sources
to posit opinions. Obviously yes, in the case of Wapo. See this piece by Wapo's OMBUDSMAN, in which he uses an anonymous source(s) to partially discredit Jose Vargas.

Here's the relevant section: "And, I, too, see cautionary notes about Vargas that might have led to Brauchli’s decision. He left behind a reputation in The Post’s newsroom for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust. Editors said that he needed direction, coaching and constant watching."

The fact that he's Wapo's public editor makes this even more egregious, in my opinion.

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From JAY ROSEN: You asked if the New York Times and Washington Post rules allow opinion and speculation from unnamed sources. There's a problem with that question. The Post rules, as far as I know, have never been published. But that's not the problem. The ombudsmen for the Times and the Post have said many times that both newsrooms repeatedly violate policy on use of anonymous sources, raising the question of whether
the written policy is the actual policy. Maybe competition (trying to beat the other guy) is allowed to override the stated rules; if so, this newsroom "rule" would of course be unstated.

First, the Washington Post. See Andrew Alexander's columns, here and here and here.

You will notice that Alexander sometimes quotes from the Post's policies, but he never links to them. Because they're not public. That is exceptionally clear in this piece from 2009.

To see the problem in action, check out the "democratic strategist" quoted here, opining that the Obama team hasn't won a single message battle all year.

Or the Treasury Department official allowed to anonymously bash an on-the-record critic here. That's right. You can go on the record with what's wrong and officials can defend their agency by attacking you anonymously in the Post.

Over at the Times, the policy is here.

Clark Hoyt, during his term as public editor, wrote repeatedly about the failure to observe the policy. You can see him doing that (with examples) here and here with a follow-up More from Hoyt on the same issue.

Here, Hoyt reports on a study he did on the issue. Note this part: "The use of anonymous sources to air opinion, not fact, increased after 2004, even though the policy would seem to discourage that."

Here's the new Public Editor, Art Brisbane, himself using an anonymous source in the military, who expresses the view that the Wikileaks field reports allow the enemy to get inside the mind of the American military.

For additional reference, here's the LA Times guidelines, which are pretty tough.

  • Jim Romenesko

    From 1999 to 2011, Jim Romenesko maintained the Romenesko page for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based non-profit school for journalists. Poynter hired him in August of 1999, after seeing his MediaGossip.com, a hobby site he started in May of 1999.

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