Ignoring the 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.

Reporter Chris Cillizza quoted a "senior Republican consultant" as saying that the intensity of the outbursts against Specter was "jaw-dropping." Cillizza wrote that the consultant "spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity."

That didn't sit well with Post reader Matt Freeman of Rockville, who e-mailed me wondering "why in God's name was it necessary to grant a Republican consultant anonymity to spin out a negative thought about a Democratic incumbent running for the Senate."

"Does such a garden-variety bit of spinning really merit such protection?" he asked.

Cillizza said he "always" pushes sources to go on the record. If they refuse, he said, anonymity is granted "only when I believe they are making an important point in terms of helping readers understand the full scope of a given story."

Reporters surveyed said that Post editors closely scrutinize anonymous sources on major stories. National security editor Cameron W. Barr said he insists on this for sensitive national security stories. But many reporters said they are rarely questioned about unnamed sources in routine stories.

Veteran staffers say that in recent years The Post has tightened up on the use of anonymous sources. As a reader since 1976, that's my impression.

Still, they're ubiquitous. Post stories containing the phrase "spoke on condition of anonymity" have appeared about 160 times this year. Anonymous sources are too prevalent in political and government stories, where reporters need to push back against lawmakers and bureaucrats who have come to expect anonymity.

It's been more than five years since The Post held staff meetings to review sourcing policies. Remedial training is long overdue, especially in a recently reorganized newsroom with so many new reporters and editors.

"We don't have a systematic way of addressing this," acknowledged Peter Perl, the Post editor in charge of personnel and training. "We tend to be reactive. We need to be proactive."

The Post's sourcing rules are fine. The problem is compliance.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog .

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