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Unnamed sources

There has been a lot of focus on the use of unnamed sources in journalism in recent months. Among them:
* The Newsweek case where the magazine published a quote from a single source, who was off the record, that they later had to retract.
* Deep Throat... the 33-year secret source for the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
* Then there is the ongoing Valerie Plame case, where one New York Times reporter sits in a jail in Alexandria, Va. because she is refusing to give up her sources.

Anonomous sources ran through Sunday's really great Meet the Press... and WP columnist David Broder wrote about the issue today.

The issue of anonmous sources is one that has plagued journalists for decades.

Just so it is out there, here is a note I sent out to Federal Computer Week's staff a few weeks ago on the issue:


In case you have not heard, Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper has apparently agreed to testify before the grand jury, but NYT reporter Judith Miller has been found in contempt and is being sent to jail. (And this all occurs just as Woodward's book on Deep Throat comes out. Irony?)

Here is a round-up on the Cooper/Miller case from Poynter.

I thought it was a good time to review – or state – FCW's policy on unnamed sources…

This is a controversial subject of late and it can get publications into problems (ie, Newsweek)...

The crux is that we want to avoid it whenever possible. Using unnamed sources hurts our credibility. [Read Poynter's "Readers: Anonymous Sources Affect Media Credibility," June 17, 2005] Let's be honest – people think we just make it up. So unnamed sources need to be the exception, not the rule. And in those exceptional cases, we still need to watch out for the reader and attempt to give them as much context as we possibly can.

I understand that there are circumstances where we do need to use unnamed sources. But in those cases, we need to provide readers with some context about this person. Is he or she with government? industry? It can make a significant different… and without that context, the person appears to have the "voice of God," when he or she may actually be a vendor who is saying that the government really needs to have a single HR system and -- presto! -- the company just happens to have a perfect solution that will solve all of the government's problems.

We want to use unnamed sources only when the information is so important that we cannot get it anywhere else. If somebody is just saying that having unified financial systems are important, it probably isn't necessary to quote them anonymously. In those cases, it is probably worth calling more people. (It is probably still worth the interview, but it may not be worth using in print. Those interviews, however, can give you background that can help flesh out your story and future interviews.) By contrast, there are situations where a vendor will say that some agency system is off track and they could lose a contract if they were to say so publicly. Even then, I think it is important to provide some context about who this person is – identifying them as a vendor at minimum… or a vendor with knowledge of the program… or a vendor competing for the program… or something that gives the readers a sense of any conflicts, if there are any.

At minimum, [FCW editor-in-chief] John [Monroe] and/or I will need to know who these people are so we can make the assessment about any potential conflicts, etc. Both John and I [and Federal Computer Week] would stand by the agreement, but it is important that your sources know that editors do need to know who is being quoted.

Finally, with all of that said, we stand by our agreements. Remember that going on background (a source is not used by name; you need to establish the parameters of that up front – is this person called an industry official or agency official or what) or to go off-the-record (you will not quote the person at all) all needs to be worked out up front. This is an ethically – if not legally -- binding agreement. We stand by those agreements. We always have and we always will. If we agree up front that we will not identify somebody at all, we won't. But we always make the final decision about whether the information that person provides is important to the story.

To summarize:

* Let's only quote anonymous sources if it is absolutely necessary.
* If we do need to make such an arrangement, do it so we can provide the reader with the necessary context – where is this person coming from?
* If that information is included in a story, make sure it is so important that it would change the reader's understanding of the situation and that there is no other way of getting the story or that comment.

This is a very important issue for journalists -- and one that we take very seriously. And it is always a balancing act. One one hand, if everything we printed had to be on the record, readers would not get a full idea of what is going on. By contrast, if everything was from unnamed sources, readers might hear much more, but they would have no way of assessing the accuracy or validity of that information.

Our role is to present readers with the information they need. The simple fact of the matter is that anonmous sources will not go away. Our goal is to use them only when they are completely necessary and when there is no other way to get the story.

In the Plume case, it is made more complicated because Time magazine's parent company decided to provide the notes.

Why is it important? Because there are times when we would not be able to get certain stories any other way. Here are Woodward and Bernstein on this subject from Meet the Press:

TIM RUSSERT, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of Meet the Press: Could you have written your Watergate stories without anonymous sources?

MR. BERNSTEIN: Absolutely not. Impossible. Could we have written...

MR. RUSSERT: And how do you apply what you learned during that time as a reporter to what we're going through right now?

MR. BERNSTEIN: They are your life line. Nobody in this town can tell the truth openly because of fear they're going to lose their jobs, that the only way you get real information is by talking person to person without--with the knowledge that your name is not going to go in the paper. What's important is the information and that the reporter is good enough to triangulate it elsewhere. That's what we did in Watergate. We didn't just use Mark Felt's information. Everything he told us we had somewhere else as well.

MR. WOODWARD: And you know what? The special prosecutor, Fitzgerald, in a way, has discovered that there is an underground railroad of information in Washington. You're smiling because no one knows more about it than you.

MR. BERNSTEIN: Well, you were down there.

MR. WOODWARD: Well, you talk to people, you talk to somebody in the White House or the CIA or the Democratic Party, and you say, "I've heard or I understand; what are you hearing?" And one of the discoveries in all of this is that reporters, in asking questions, convey information to even somebody like Karl Rove. Where did he first learn important elements of this? From a reporter. Now, my view, and I think Carl agrees with this, this investigation, though properly empowered, is an assault on that process that we have not just in Washington, any other community in this country where we have a First Amendment, and he will wind up crippling that process by dragging reporters before the grand jury. And I wonder if he and the judge have really sat down and said, "Now, what are we going to gain here vs. what are we going to lose?" And the loss might be immense.

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Jul 18, 2005 at 12:14 PM


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