Washington Post Policy on Sources

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004; 4:37 PM

The Washington Post is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent. We want to make our reporting as transparent to the readers as possible so they may know how and where we got our information. Transparency is honest and fair, two values we cherish. Whenever questions arise about how to convey the transparency of our reporting to the reader, consult with editors.

Confidential Sources

Sources often insist that we agree not to name them in the newspaper before they agree to talk with us. We must be reluctant to grant their wish. When we use an unnamed source, we are asking our readers to take an extra step to trust the credibility of the information we are providing. We must be certain in our own minds that the benefit to readers is worth the cost in credibility.

In some circumstances, we will have no choice but to grant confidentiality to sources. We recognize that there are situations in which we can give our readers better, fuller information by allowing sources to remain unnamed than if we insist on naming them. We realize that in many circumstances, sources will be unwilling to reveal to us information about corruption in their own organizations, or high-level policy disagreements, for example, if disclosing their identities could cost them their jobs or expose them to harm. Nevertheless, granting anonymity to a source should not be done casually or automatically.

Named sources are vastly to be preferred to unnamed sources. Reporters should press to have sources go on the record. We have learned over the years that persistently pushing sources to identify themselves actually worksnot always, of course, but more often than many reporters initially expect. If a particular source refuses to allow us to identify him or her, the reporter should consider seeking the information elsewhere.

Editors have an obligation to know the identity of unnamed sources used in a story, so that editors and reporters can jointly assess the appropriateness of using them. Some sources may insist that a reporter not reveal their identity to her editors; we should resist this. When it happens, the reporter should make clear that information so obtained cannot be published. The source of anything that appears in the paper will be known to at least one editor.

We prefer at least two sources for factual information in Post stories that depends on confidential informants, and those sources should be independent of each other. We prefer sources with first-hand or direct knowledge of the information. A relevant document can sometimes serve as a second source. There are situations in which we will publish information from a single source, but we should only do so after deliberations involving the executive editor, the managing editor or the appropriate AME. The judgment to use a single source depends on the source's reliability and the basis for the source's information.

We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence. Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources. This means avoiding attributions to "sources" or "informed sources." Instead we should try to give the reader something more, such as "sources familiar with the thinking of defense lawyers in the case," or "sources whose work brings them into contact with the county executive," or "sources on the governor's staff who disagree with his policy."

In the age of news management, some government agencies and private companies order their employees never to speak to a reporter on the record. In politics, locally and nationally, people who work as aides to prominent figures are often reluctant to speak on the record on behalf of their bosses. But we can still help readers with specific, if anonymous, attribution. So "a senior aide to a Democratic senator on the Commerce Committee" is more helpful to the reader than "a Senate Democratic source."

When sources refuse to be identified, it is often helpful to show readers that we tried to identify them, and explain why we could not. We should write, for example, that a source "spoke only on the condition that he or she not be named," rather than saying that a source "asked not to be identified." Merely asking should not be sufficient to become anonymous in our stories. It is nearly always possible to provide some useful information about a confidential source. In rare cases when you think a story simply cannot do this, you should seek the approval of the relevant AME, the managing editor or the executive editor before printing information attributed to a totally unidentified source.

Spokespersons, by virtue of their role and title, should be on the record when they are giving briefings or calling us with information. When they decline to be quoted by name in such situations, we should protest, ask for a publishable explanation as to why, and tell readers what happened, if appropriate.

When we call spokespersons in search of guidance, confirmation or information that we need, of course, we can accept that information on background or not for attribution.

In cases where a source is actively trying to persuade us to put something into the paper, but refuses to be identified, we should request a publishable reason for concealing the source's identity. In an era when more and more of the people we deal with want to remain hidden from view, we can help readers by telling them the reasons why they are not seeing more on-the-record quotes. Indeed, this is one of our best weapons against excessive secrecy. A sentence that reminds readers, for example, that a particular government agency has internal rules forbidding most of its officials from speaking on the record, and has refused to explain this policy publicly, is a good addition to any story where it is appropriate.


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