washingtonpost.com
Still falling short on anonymous sources

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, November 8, 2009

In the run-up to last week's Virginia gubernatorial election, The Post published a front-page story quoting unnamed White House officials dumping on Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds.

"Senior administration officials" said they were frustrated with how Deeds was handling his campaign. A "senior administration official" said Deeds had "badly erred on several fronts." And "administration officials" predicted he would lose on Tuesday.

All these anonymous sources were too much for Post reader Dee Ellison of Falls Church. "It seems that nearly every article in The Post these days attributes information to 'unnamed sources' or 'senior officials' or whoever 'spoke on condition of anonymity,' " she e-mailed. "While it is sometimes needed, I believe it is not appropriate to hide the names of sources to the extent that The Post does."

She's right. Anonymous sources often are necessary. And too many of them appear in The Post.

But there's another problem. When they must be used, The Post doesn't do a good enough job of explaining why.

The Post's internal policies say: "We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence." That means offering enough description so readers can evaluate the quality of the source. Did they actually see or hear what took place? Do they have first-hand knowledge?

A review of anonymous-source usage over the past month shows that readers often got only bare-bones attribution. Of roughly 100 Post news stories using unnamed sources, fully a third provided no meaningful description. Typically, they referred vaguely to "sources," "officials," a "State Department official" or a "Democratic official."

Since President Obama took office in January, more than 120 Post stories have cited unnamed "senior administration officials." But who qualifies as a "senior" official? The Post has no internal definitions to guide its reporters, although status is often obvious from an official's title or whether they sit in on senior-staff meetings.

But for readers, who don't know that, confidence could be enhanced if stories briefly explained why an unnamed senior official is being quoted. Absent that, readers should be excused for wondering whether many of these sources are actually in the know.

Post guidelines say: "It is nearly always possible to provide some useful information about a confidential source." They urge reporters to "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.'"

For example, a recent story by financial writer Tomoeh Murakami Tse cited "three sources familiar with the decision" by Bank of America to give legal documents to investigators probing its purchase of Merrill Lynch. That has a ring of authority.

Readers write me constantly to complain about the overuse of anonymous sources. Some are troubled that they appear at all.

They're often essential. Without them, readers would be deprived of important disclosures about official corruption, misconduct, high-level policy debates or diplomatic disputes.

When they must be used, it's not always possible to provide identifying information so readers can gauge their veracity. That was the case with the Deeds story.

"I hate [using anonymous sources] as much as every reader who complains," said reporter Anne E. Kornblut, who co-wrote the story with Rosalind S. Helderman. But she added that there were only a few senior officials familiar with White House interaction with the Deeds campaign, and they insisted on anonymity. "There didn't seem to us to be any way to further identify them without giving away who they were," she said. It was the right call.

But in many other stories, readers could be told about the quality of unnamed sources without blowing their cover.

A few months ago in this space, I criticized The Post for routinely ignoring its strict rules on anonymous sources. Many staffers confessed they hadn't read them in years. And about two-thirds of the nearly 30 reporters I questioned said editors never or rarely demanded to know the identity of an anonymous source, which is required under Post policies.

The column prompted a staff memo from Peter Perl, the Post editor in charge of personnel and training, urging greater adherence to the rules. Anecdotally, staffers report improvement. But given Washington's pernicious culture of anonymity, The Post must be relentless is trying to keep anonymous sources to a minimum.

If they must be used, The Post can at least strengthen the bond of trust with its readers by explaining why the sources should be believed.

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

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