August 7, 2015

More than a year after its inception, The Intercept is developing a series of editorial standards and best practices that include guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources.

The processes, which are currently being discussed among staffers at First Look Media, come as the publication is looking to spell out certain aspects of its editorial philosophy.

“We’re still a relatively young organization, and we’re in the process of creating a detailed style and editorial standards guide,” said Betsy Reed, editor in chief of The Intercept. “The anonymity policy came up as a natural part of that process.”

New rules for anonymous sourcing at The Intercept would formalize a decision-making process that has so far been undertaken on a case-by-case basis. The site, which covers such highly secretive subjects as national security and government surveillance, has lent anonymity to sources to report out sensitive stories. The Intercept launched with a story anonymously quoting a former drone operator who told founders Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill that the National Security Agency often uses metadata analysis to identify targets for drone strikes. One story published months after the site’s launch date that revealed details of Barack Obama’s terrorist tracking system included information from “a U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with watchlisting data.”

The Intercept has in the past publicly emphasized its commitment to protecting its sources, anonymous and otherwise. The site has adopted encryption to allow sources to discreetly feed its reporters information and published a guide instructing would-be leakers on ways to divulge their secrets.

Formalized rules governing who gets anonymity would be in line with public statements made by one of the site’s most vocal and influential journalists. Glenn Greenwald, a co-founder of The Intercept, has been an outspoken critic of reporters and newsrooms who provide flimsy justification for granting anonymity to sources. In recent months, he has been critical of both The New York Times and The Sunday Times for shielding sources who provided anonymous critiques.

News of the proposed rules first surfaced earlier Friday when BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith accidentally tweeted messages from Jana Winter, a staffer at The Intercept who appeared to chafe at possible restrictions to reporting that relies on anonymous sources. When reached by phone Friday, Winter said the guidelines have not materialized yet and do not prevent her from doing her job.

“I was letting off steam about something that wasn’t even an issue,” said Winter, who is helping develop the guidelines.

The guidelines come as many news organizations grapple with the nuances of sourcing amid an era of increasing requests for anonymity. Several prominent news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and others have been criticized in recent years for over-reliance on unnamed sources. A 2013 report from The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi highlighted the uptick in anonymously sourced articles and noted that many requests didn’t adhere to traditional standards.

The Intercept isn’t the first Web-only publication to set forth editorial standards and practices. In January, BuzzFeed published a standards and ethics guide that allows for the use of anonymous sources but advises reporters to seek on-the-record information first. Gawker Media, which recently underwent upheaval stemming from the removal of a post exposing a media executive, is currently in talks to come up with a new editorial code that extolls “high journalistic standards.”

Correction: A previous version of this story omitted a word from Jana Winter’s quote.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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