NYT public editor Clark Hoyt scolds the paper for continually breaking its own rules on anonymous sources.
THE Times has a tough policy on anonymous sources, but continues to fall down in living up to it. That’s my conclusion after scanning a sampling of articles published in all sections of the paper since the first of the year. This will not surprise the many readers who complain to me that the paper lets too many of its sources hide from public view.
• The policy says anonymous sources should be used only as “a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way.” But in an article about the decoration of New York apartment building lobbies, a woman was granted anonymity to describe a particularly edgy one as “a den of hell.” She had been visiting a friend in the building and would not give her name, the article said, “for fear of offending the hostess.”
In last Sunday’s Times, a “senior government official who was not authorized to speak on the record” denounced bonuses to A.I.G. executives as “unacceptable.” Last resort? A reader peeking over the top of the paper that day could have seen Lawrence Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, calling the bonuses “outrageous” on television.
• The policy says the newspaper will not allow personal or partisan attacks from behind a mask of anonymity. Yet an anonymous Yankees official could trash Alex Rodriguez (“His legacy, now, is gone”), and an anonymous Jets official could say that the team did not want to sign Terrell Owens because he would have poisoned it and torn up the locker room. A competitor of an Internet start-up was allowed to slam its business model without his name being attached to his belittling quotes.
• The policy says rote references to sources who “insisted on anonymity” or “demanded anonymity” should be avoided because they “offer the reader no help and make our decisions appear automatic.” Since Jan. 1, sources who “spoke on condition of anonymity” have appeared in The Times more than 240 times. Often a reason was given, but sometimes there was no explanation for why a source needed anonymity and nothing to help a reader decide how reliable the person’s information was.
A recent article about The Washington Post’s handling of the “Doonesbury” comic strip said sources at The Post asked not to be identified “for fear of appearing to embarrass a colleague.” That amused Frank Herron of Winchester, Mass. “It’s nice to see that journalists still have feelings and are sensitive to the feelings of others,” he said.
Hoyt had a study done last year, but the Caroline Kennedy situation pushed him into reviewing the matter. He thinks the NYT must re-dedicate its efforts, and top editors agree.
After reviewing some examples, Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said, “The bar should be far higher than it is before a reporter puts an anonymous quote in and before an editor lets it stay in.” Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, said he was thinking of holding a bureau meeting to discuss pushing back against the city’s prevailing culture of anonymity. “We work very hard to avoid unnecessary anonymous sources,” Baquet told me. “All that said, we can do better.”
Next week, I will deal more with the special challenges Washington presents.
If you're interested in this topic, read the whole column. Lots of other good stuff in it.