- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

Anonymous sources

There is no getting around the use of anonymous sources; many of our best stories come from people who would be fired if they were caught talking to a reporter, while government officials and diplomats routinely set ground rules for interviews that prohibit the use of their names.

But over time, the press has become a lot more sensitive about the way we use such sources and how we identify them.

For years, reporters and editors were content to simply drop a bombshell into an article with nothing more than the simple phrase, “sources said,” or if we were feeling especially expansive, “well-placed sources said.”

Over the years, news organizations have come to believe they owed more than that to their readers and listeners, and began trying to offer at least some indication of why the source would have access to the sort of information being offered.

On a story about a criminal investigation, for instance, we might say, “a police source” or “a source involved in the investigation.”

Such terminology generally has to be negotiated with the source, often a person who could lose his or her job if management figured out who had been spilling secrets to reporters.

Naturally, most sources prefer to keep the attribution as vague as possible while reporters want to be as specific as possible. The result is often some ungainly construction, such as “a source knowledgeable about the matter.”

Somehow in the last few years, it became common practice at the wire agencies and leading newspapers to use the phrase, “a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.”

The thinking, I presume, is that we should explain to the reader that we would tell them who the source was if we could, but that the source would not talk to us under any other circumstances.

General principles

I have always found the phrase clumsy and a bit insulting. Aren’t our readers sophisticated enough to understand we don’t withhold names just for the pleasure of it?

Still, it has become the industry standard, and we go along with it much of the time.

In the past few months, many leading papers have gone further, routinely offering an explanation of why the source wants to be anonymous. But often, the result is strained and not very helpful.

“The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information,” said one story last week in the Miami Herald.

“The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is under review,” said another item in the Seattle Times.

I’m not sure how this began. Perhaps there was a big meeting that we were not invited to. But more likely it started at the wire agencies or the New York Times and others began following suit.

We have no fixed rule on the matter at The Washington Times, and probably won’t have anytime soon. But we do have a few general principles that we consider important and to which we adhere.

• We impress on our reporters that every statement of fact in their stories should be attributed to some source, such as a document or official or witness. Ideally these should be open sources that any interested reader can verify for him or herself.

• Where we do use anonymous sources, we go as far as we can, without breaking faith with the source, to explain why that person would have access to the kind of information being offered.

There are other steps that we take. We do not accept stories from freelancers based on anonymous sources unless we have had a longstanding relationship with the reporter. When we quote from documents that are not generally available, we often graphically reproduce the key part of the document to show that we have it in our possession.

None of this is perfect, but it is all based on the notion that our most precious possession is our credibility. If readers don’t believe what we tell them, we have nothing to sell.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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