New York Times Warns Newsroom on Anonymous Sources

Fresh from a farewell dinner for departing New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, the paper's standards editor, Phil Corbett, issued a memo to the newsroom yesterday on that perpetually controversial issue: use of anonymous sources. Full memo below.

August 31, 2010
A Reminder on Anonymous Sources

Phil Corbett offers a reminder and some suggestions on our use and description of anonymous sources.

At a farewell dinner for Clark Hoyt, a number of editors once again discussed our use of anonymous sources. And we agreed, yet again, that we often stray from our own guidelines.

Time for another reminder and some new suggestions. (This memo echoes and reinforces our 2004 Confidential Sources Policy, as well as follow-up memos from Bill in 2005 and 2008. Jill also addressed the issue for readers in a Talk to the Newsroom feature.)

The most common problem actually involves one of the less crucial aspects of our guidelines – the question of what explanation, if any, we offer the reader for why a source wants to be anonymous. So I'll deal with that issue first. Then I'll briefly re-emphasize the most important parts of our rules.

Why the Source Is Anonymous

Pat, formulaic expressions of why an anonymous source wants to be anonymous are probably worse than no explanation at all. They are uninformative and give readers the impression that our anonymity rules are on autopilot.

Saying that a source insisted on anonymity because he was "not authorized" to speak is usually stating the obvious, and is of little or no help to a reader. Yet we've used that formulation nearly 300 times in the past year.

Let's stop using such rote formulas as "because he/she was not authorized to speak ..." or "because of the sensitivity of the issue."

In lieu of such boilerplate, reporters and editors should in all cases discuss why the source wants anonymity, and consider seriously whether we can say something informative or interesting.

When warranted, a thoughtful sentence or paragraph, describing the pressures or concerns of the people involved in a situation, may give readers greater insight than a terse phrase. In other cases, a shorter explanation may be useful, but only if it conveys some real information. Here are some examples that would be enlightening and worth including:

- "out of fear for his safety."
- "out of fear of retaliation from X."
- "because parties to the negotiations had promised to keep them confidential."
- "because the company has threatened to fire workers who speak to the press."
- "because Politician X insists that his aides not speak to reporters."
- "to avoid antagonizing Official X."
- "because disclosing grand jury testimony can be illegal."

Of course, in all cases we must take care not to inadvertently violate the agreement to protect a source's identity.

If the reason for anonymity is obvious, or we can't shed any light beyond the fact that the source is unwilling to be named, we should simply describe the source as clearly as we can and leave it at that.

The Source's Credibility

As Bill and others have emphasized before, the more crucial question for the reader is how to judge the source's credibility. So we should say as much as we can about how the source knows the information. Was he at the meeting? Did she work on the legislation? Have they seen the document?

We should also give as clear an idea as possible of what motivation, bias or interest the source has in the issue. Does she favor/oppose the bill? Was he fired by the company? Have they tangled with Official X in the past?

Informing Editors

Remember that under our rules, at least one editor must know the identity of an anonymous source. (As standards editor, I do occasional spot checks to make sure this policy is being followed.) Some desks make it a regular practice to put a note on a story indicating what editor has discussed the sources with the reporter.

Overuse of Anonymous Sources

A final reminder, on the most basic point. While anonymous sources are sometimes crucial to our journalism, every time we rely on anonymity, we put some strain on our credibility with readers. As all our guidelines emphasize, we should resort to anonymous sources only for newsworthy information that we can't report any other way. Anonymity should not be invoked for trivial, obvious or tangential information, or for quotes that add little of substance. And it should not be used as a mask for personal attacks.

Let me know if you have questions.

Phil Corbett
August 2010