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Post's problems with anonymous-source rules get worse online

By Andrew Alexander
Friday, December 17, 2010;

Post readers constantly complain about the excessive use of anonymous sources in the newspaper. But the problem is even worse online.

Staff-written news blogs are replete with violations of The Post's long-established and laudable standards governing confidential sources. These unnamed sources often are cited without providing readers with even a hint of their reliability or why they were granted anonymity.

In the first two weeks of December alone, Post news blogs included more than 20 unnamed sources without any explanation of their quality or why they warranted confidentiality. Many blogs referred only to "sources" or "those close to" a subject or situation.

That's at odds with The Post's internal "Standards and Ethics" policies, which instruct reporters to tell readers "as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence." They forbid attribution solely to "sources." And they note that it "is nearly always possible to provide some useful information about a confidential source," such as whether the source has firsthand knowledge of the topic being written about.

News blogs often are more conversational than news stories. Some serve select audiences, such as Washington Redskins fans or political junkies, and include information too granular for a broad newspaper audience. Should sourcing policies be the same for print and online?

"Good journalism outlets should apply the same [sourcing] standards. . .regardless of media platform," said Stephen J.A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in an e-mail. "To do otherwise is to not only violate central principles of responsible journalism but to further blur the already blurry distinction, in the public's mind, between rumor-mongering Web sites and credible journalism."

The complaints I receive about anonymous sources tend to focus on stories in the newspaper. That raises the question of whether readers of blogs may be more tolerant of the use of unnamed sources.

Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said via e-mail that readers "tend to trust information when they have a relationship with the provider," whether it's The Post or its bloggers. "To the extent that blogs, when well done, build relationships between the writer and the audience, there is probably greater trust and more of a willingness to say, 'Okay, I believe that.' "

But, she noted, that's not necessarily true of the "doubters," the large number of readers who are persistently skeptical of information provided by the media.

"The reason we source information is not for the people who are likely to already believe it," she said. "It's for the people who are going to say, 'No way, that can't be true.'"

The Post has dozens of news blogs. Laxity on sourcing rules seems to occur most frequently in those covering sports and politics.

Sports Editor Matthew Vita noted that rules on anonymous sourcing have sometimes been neglected as sports bloggers post updates eight or more times a day, occasionally even while news conferences are in progress. Regardless, he said, "we need to apply the same rules and standards for our blogs as we do for our printed copy."

The question of whether there is a double standard is broader than the issue of sourcing. McBride said she is convinced that "among professional newsrooms, the general standards for editing, verification and other quality control measurers are looser online than in the legacy platform," like the newspaper.

As an example, Post bloggers also have neglected rules on reporting about polls.

The Post's internal standards urge caution in reporting on telephone "robopolls," which can be unreliable. A recorded voice prompts people to respond by punching buttons on their phone. But without a human to verify who is answering, there's no way to tell whether it's an adult or a child, for instance. Regardless, these polls have often been cited in Post blogs.

"Technically, the same [polling] standards apply in print and online," said Jon Cohen, The Post's director of polling. "But that has not been the case in practice" because bloggers have not always followed them.

Cohen noted that politics blogs cater to a specialized audience that may want to know about polls regardless of their reliability. "It seems to be a rather uncomfortable position for a news organization to deny people things they want," he said.

Cohen urged a broader newsroom discussion about "what Washington Post journalism means" online and whether time-honored print standards should be altered for some news delivered digitally.

I'd second that. But not for anonymous sources, which already are out of control. One standard should apply. Enforcement, sorely lacking, should be strict.

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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