Post Often Ignores Its Own Rules on Anonymous Sources

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Post has strict rules on the use of anonymous sources. They're spelled out in detail -- more than 3,000 words -- in its internal stylebook.

But some of those lofty standards are routinely ignored. Others are unevenly applied. And despite the importance of those standards, many Post staffers lack a thorough knowledge of the policies and confess they haven't reviewed them in years.

News organizations can pay dearly if they're not vigilant about sourcing. At minimum, credibility can suffer. At worst, a damaging journalistic transgression can occur.

Anonymous sources are critical to newsgathering -- and to informing readers. Without a guarantee of confidentiality, many sources wouldn't share sensitive information on corruption or misconduct.

But anonymity can be overused and abused. Sources can make false or misleading assertions with impunity. Journalists can inflate a source's reliability or even fabricate his or her existence.

That's why The Post has such stringent rules. But they're not always followed.

For example, Post policies say that editors have an "obligation" to know the identity of a reporter's unnamed sources so they can "jointly assess" whether they should be used. "The source of anything that appears in the paper will be known to at least one editor," the stylebook says.

But of nearly 30 Post reporters questioned recently about their use of anonymous sources, roughly two-thirds said that editors never or rarely ask to know the identity.

Also, roughly half of the reporters were confused about the basic ground rules for dealing with sources. Most knew that information obtained "on background" could be used without naming the source (example: "a high-level State Department official"). But many wrongly believed that allowing a source to speak "off the record" meant the information could be used. To the contrary, Post rules say: "By our definition, off-the-record information cannot be used, either in the paper or in further reporting." If Post reporters are confused, chances are it's not clear to their sources.

The Post also is inconsistent in how it describes unnamed sources and the reasons they were granted anonymity. Post policies say that readers should be told as much as possible about the quality of a confidential source ("with first-hand knowledge of the case," for instance). They also say "we must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence."

But Post stories often say only that an unnamed source "spoke on condition of anonymity."

A story last Thursday fell short of these standards, as well as a Post rule against partisan quotations from unnamed sources. The A-section piece reported on a town hall meeting during which some angry constituents confronted Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who is running for reelection.

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