You might have heard that the New York Times has tightened its rules for anonymous sourcing. The crux of the change is that stories that depend on such sources must now be reviewed by a top editor before publication.
Oh. Weren’t we already doing that?
Turns out they weren’t at the Times. And that has led to some high-profile goofs that dragged down the credibility of the old gray lady. One had to do with an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and the other turned on social media posts from the San Bernadino shooters. The newspaper suggested the Clinton investigation was criminal when it wasn’t and the Times said authorities missed obvious social media posts pointing toward radicalism. Both of those claims were attributed to anonymous sources. Both were untrue. Whoops.
As a result of things like this, Margaret Sullivan, the newspaper’s “public editor,” has waged a years-long campaign to challenge unreliable, unnamed sources. This month, she won a major victory for readers when editors promised to rein in the use of anonymous sources.
In making the change, Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy said one goal was to give extra scrutiny to stories that had the potential to be “journalistic I.E.D.s.” These are stories that could blow up in the faces of everyone at the paper. I understand that, but I think we should all start by taking a look at the little firecrackers as well as the big bombs. I would argue that using anonymous sources of any kind should be extremely rare. Perhaps they make sense in cases of national security… personal safety… I’m already running out of allowable uses. …
I can imagine times the New York Times could use anonymous sources for certain grave stories; I have a much harder time conjuring reasons for the Montrose Daily Press to use them. Usually, the stakes just aren’t that high.
Promise me this: Any time you think you need an anonymous source, run it by your newspaper’s top editor and publisher. Heck, call me if you like. Decide whether the source wants anonymity for reasons of expediency or clear and present danger. Does she have an agenda? Could she be wrong? Is there a way to get the information without relying on an anonymous source?
Don’t let the journalistic I.E.D. blow up in your face.