A WORD TO POST READERS
More About Our Sources and Methods
Sunday, March 15, 1998; Page C01
The Post's coverage of President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones et al., has prompted questions and complaints from some readers who understandably wish they could know more about our sources. "I'm sick of this sourceless news," one reader told our ombudsman.
He's not alone. These stories have aggravated an old problem: How can we best convey information to readers when our sources absolutely refuse to be identified?
The job of Post journalists is to inform readers on matters of public interest and importance. Our goal is to tell people what we find out when we are confident that the information is accurate. We strive to share with readers the sources of our information, but that is not always possible.
Why not? Usually, the explanations are quite obvious. Consider the story we published March 5 about President Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. Post reporter Peter Baker got the first detailed, authoritative account of what Clinton said in his deposition. But the deposition was sealed and subject to a "gag order" from Judge Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge in Little Rock who is presiding over Jones's civil lawsuit against the president. She had ordered all participants in the case not to disclose any of the evidence introduced in pretrial proceedings. To get this story, Baker had to agree that we would do nothing to disclose how he learned what he learned.
We decided to print a long story after establishing to our own absolute satisfaction that it was a complete and reliable report of the president's testimony and of how the president reacted at certain moments during the deposition as well. Our story was attributed to "a detailed account" of Clinton's deposition, an admittedly frustrating and uninformative formulation. This angered some readers, who complained that its sources must have been tendentious, unreliable, unethical or had violated the law by evading Judge Wright's order. Some readers said they doubted The Post even had a source.
We remain bound by the "ground rules," as journalists call them, under which Baker learned details of Clinton's deposition. But it is noteworthy to us that no one involved in the case raised even a minor question about the story's accuracy. Other news organizations came up with accounts that confirmed ours. Friday's release of nearly the entire deposition by Jones's lawyers now allows any curious citizen to confirm our story.
Yes, this may sound arrogant. And yes, we realize that we strain relations with readers when we ask them, as we did in this case and many others during the past seven weeks, to trust us and our unidentified sources. But we are left in this position once we decide that our first obligation to readers is to give them as good and as timely information as we can. And that is our decision, almost always. Informing the reader comes first.
This means, as some readers have pointed out to us, that we published Baker's story knowing that the information it contained was subject to Judge Wright's order. As a legal matter, such orders do not cover the media, and we and our lawyers believe that judges in America cannot gag the press, whose freedom is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. We expend much of our energy on finding information of public interest that others don't want published in a newspaper: That's what the Pentagon Papers case was about. And there are countless, more mundane examples. The District of Columbia's police department chronically withholds information we think belongs in the public domain; we are always battling the department to learn things it wants to hide from us. When we succeed, we publish it. We believe readers have a right to know. That is our bias.
Some critics, including our own ombudsman, think The Post has changed its traditional policies, which call for maximum possible identification of sources, at least two sources for confidential information and strong efforts by our reporters to get sources on the record. Those policies have not changed. We adhere to those standards.
Each situation that arises has to be dealt with individually. For example, when a reporter comes back with an important story based on an authentic, classified or confidential document that the reporter has personally read, that's good enough for us. If we have seen the document, we don't require a second source.
Occasionally, The Post will run a story that seems to be based on a single human source. In its text, you will read only that the information came, for example, from "a source knowledgeable about the situation." This is a frustrating attribution, to be sure. But in this media-saturated age, many knowledgeable sources learn how to protect themselves and box us into a corner where we must choose between using their information with vague attribution, or not sharing it with readers at all.
In such cases we may have a second and even a third source who has confirmed the information "off the record." This means we cannot refer to the second or third source in any way. But we know what they told us, and if it confirms what we know from another source, that strengthens our confidence in the accuracy of our story. On other occasions, we may have seen a confirming document but under circumstances we have agreed not to recount. Sometimes we put added trust in a single source who was a participant in or eyewitness to the events described.
Some readers complain that we must be allowing interested parties to color our coverage by leaking selective information to us. Of course, we cannot be certain this never happens, but we work hard to prevent it. No reporter at The Post has been handed a juicy story during the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky episode. Our people are out daily, piecing together stories that often take many days to report. Yes, some of our sources want to grind axes. We recognize that, and treat their information accordingly. But we will never print a story that comes from a single, tendentious source without credible confirmation. We do not print unconfirmed stories just because they are juicy, or just to beat our competition.
We know we will be held accountable for our accuracy. We hope that readers will judge The Post by its reliability. Nothing is more important to us than our credibility. We realize many readers are infuriated by anonymous sourcing. Many journalists are, too. But we also think our readers should know that sometimes granting anonymity to sources is the only way to acquire publishable information on matters of interest and importance to them. So, if we have confidence in our information, we will print it.
Are the stories of Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton, Paula Jones et al., a matter of public interest and importance? We have thought so from the day we published the first Lewinsky story. It was based on our discovery that independent counsel Kenneth Starr had broadened his investigation of the president after hearing tape-recorded conversations in which the former White House intern had suggested that the president and his friend Vernon Jordan might have suborned perjury or obstructed justice.
Recent reader reaction has reminded us that we can and should do more to describe how we work in difficult situations; hence this article. Traditional newspaper journalism leaves insufficient room for dialogue between journalists and their readers. We have resolved to do better.
Robert Kaiser is managing editor of The Washington Post.
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