The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The New York Times tightens rules for using anonymous sources

Pedestrians wait for cabs across the street from the New York Times in 2014, in New York. (Associated Press)

Last July, the New York Times relied on “multiple high-level government sources” to report a big scoop on how Hillary Clinton was the subject of a criminal inquiry referral relating to her use of email during her tenure as secretary of state. It took the newspaper a pair of corrections and an editor’s note to put things in order: The inquiry was looking into the mishandling of “sensitive government information,” and Clinton was not the target of a criminal probe.

An editor’s note also rushed in to salvage a New York Times story from December, in which a trio of reporters relied on “accounts from law enforcement officials” to allege that San Bernardino assailant Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” A few days later, FBI Director James Comey made a public statement that there was “no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom.” As it turned out, Malik communicated with husband and fellow assailant Syed Farook via private messaging channels.

Two big stories, two sets of anonymous sources, two editor’s notes.

Perhaps in reference to these episodes, the New York Times on Tuesday posted a fresh set of guidelines on anonymous sourcing. “In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism — and it has turned out to be wrong,” reads the note from Executive Editor Dean Baquet and two other top newsroom officials. More from the memo:

The use of anonymous sources presents the greatest risk in our most consequential, exclusive stories. But the appearance of anonymous sources in routine government and political stories, as well as many other enterprise and feature stories, also tests our credibility with readers. They routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.

The main requirement in the guidelines relates to consultation. When the “primary news element” hinges “entirely on one or more anonymous sources,” the masthead must be consulted. Specifically, Baquet or Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy or Deputy Executive Editor Susan Chira must be presented with all such stories. Nor can the approval request be a casual issue bundled with a lot of other stuff: “This conversation or email exchange should not be part of a routine discussion of multiple stories,” reads the guidance. “Sending a batch of summaries or simply passing along a copy without comment is not enough. This should be a dedicated conversation, focusing entirely on the sourcing issue of this one story.” In other words, sound the siren.

Other requirements include making sure that department heads approve less pivotal anonymous-source usage and that at least one editor know the identity of a source.

Easily the most glorious part of the guidance relates to quotations, which cannot be published from an anonymous source unless they secure approval from a department head or deputy.

Sources who demand anonymity give up the opportunity to have their speculation or interpretation reflected in our stories, and such quotes will no longer be allowed except in the rare instances when the direct quote is pivotal to a story. Other exceptions might include ordinary individuals who are sharing personal details in difficult circumstances and whose voices are worth capturing — for instance, immigrants discussing their ordeal with smugglers, or patients sharing their medical histories.

The New York Times just got a bit shorter.

Margaret Sullivan, the outgoing public editor of the New York Times, hatched an “AnonyWatch” feature to expose the unnamed excesses of the New York Times, though she despaired in one piece that her struggles were for naught. Maybe not!

We shall see: Either reporters at the newspaper will suddenly become far more disciplined in their use of anonymous sources, or a bunch of editors are going to be very, very busy evaluating the merits of this, that and the other quote.

Ever seeking balance, the New York Times editors make this point in favor of the maligned practice: “At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable.” The memo writers left out one recent triumph of anonymous usage: The January scoop by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman on Michael Bloomberg’s consideration of a presidential run. “Mr. Bloomberg, 73, has already taken concrete steps toward a possible campaign, and has indicated to friends and allies that he would be willing to spend at least $1 billion of his fortune on it, according to people briefed on his deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss his plans,” wrote the reporters in a story that held up like an iron gate.