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For The Post, anonymous sources remain a problem

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, June 13, 2010; A13

Last month, a story about conflicts between parents and childless adults began with an anecdote about an unleashed puppy pestering a toddler in a District park. After the child's father complained, the dog's owner told The Post that parents of children can be "tyrants" and she urged them to keep their kids inside the park's fenced-in play area. "I think children are fine," she was quoted as saying, but "I don't think they own everything."

For this, The Post identified the woman only as Linda, a veteran journalist, "because she didn't want to be seen as hostile to children."

The Post's internal policies set a high threshold for granting anonymity. It "should not be done casually or automatically." Further, "merely asking should not be sufficient to become anonymous in our stories." If sources refuse to go on the record, "the reporter should consider seeking the information elsewhere."

But too often it seems The Post grants anonymity at the drop of a hat.

In a recent politics story, a Democratic strategist was afforded anonymity so he could be "candid." In April, a source was granted anonymity for an inoffensive quote "because he is reluctant to have his name in the paper."

Late last year, a Post story on then-White House social secretary Desirée Rogers quoted a friend who was granted anonymity "in order not to offend." Another source in the story was given anonymity "so as not to upset" Rogers.

Reader Jay Thomas of Herndon complained about these "flimsiest" of reasons. "Either the passages in question should have been dropped from the piece," he wrote me, "or another source who could voice the same opinion . . . without the cloak of anonymity should have been found."

More recently, in a story about Senate consideration of the financial overhaul bill, a banking lobbyist was granted anonymity so he could "speak more freely." The lobbyist told The Post that the provision in the bill would have a "chilling effect" because "Markets crave certainty. All this does is introduce a comic amount of uncertainty."

Reader Jonathan Wood of London objected. "The utterly banal remark that 'Markets crave certainty' certainly did not require granting anonymity to 'speak more freely,' " he e-mailed. "This article essentially gives a platform to someone actively lobbying to weaken or kill the bill to make an unattributed criticism."

Anonymity, granted judiciously, can benefit readers. Sources often require confidentiality to disclose corruption or policy blunders. On a lesser scale, stories can be enriched with information from sources who would suffer retribution if identified.

But by casually agreeing to conceal the identities of those who provide non-critical information, The Post erodes its credibility and perpetuates Washington's insidious culture of anonymity.

There's evidence The Post's use of anonymous sources is growing. The phrase "spoke on condition of anonymity" has appeared in an average of 71 stories a month through May -- slightly higher than in the same period a year ago. This year, it has appeared more than 450 times (stories often include multiple anonymous sources). And that doesn't include all of the anonymous sources described in other ways. For example, those ubiquitous unnamed "senior administration officials" have been quoted more than 130 times this year. Post rules urge that when sources are granted anonymity, readers be told why. But in more than 85 stories this year where sources "spoke on condition of anonymity," there was no explanation. In many others, where a weak rationale was offered, readers protested.

That was the case with the story about the clash between parents and childless adults. Online commenters criticized granting anonymity to the source who "didn't want to be seen as hostile to children." Wrote one: "If she didn't want to share her name, she shouldn't have been permitted to share her point of view."

Post reporter Annys Shin, who authored the story, agrees in retrospect. "It wasn't exactly about state secrets," Shin acknowledged. "In the end, I should have insisted, or we should have just not used that anecdote."

For decades, ombudsmen have complained about The Post's unwillingness to follow its own lofty standards on anonymous sources. Readers, who care about the quality of The Post's journalism, persistently object to anonymity they see as excessive and incessant. The problem is endemic. Reporters should be blamed. But the solution must come in the form of unrelenting enforcement by editors, starting with those at the top.

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

ombudsman-blog/.

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