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Archive for the ‘Confidential sources’ Category

I’m leading a workshop today for the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference on using unnamed sources.

I’ll discuss points made in posts about using unnamed sources, including one on persuading people to talk for the record about difficult topics (and my 20-years-later CJR piece about one of the sources) and another on using information from unnamed sources to persuade other sources to talk for the record. I also will talk about the importance of power and eagerness in granting confidentiality, and suggest we should not quote spokespeople for powerful people and organizations without using their names.

I also mention a couple of posts by others about email encryption for journalists.

Here are my slides for the workshop:

And here are some tweets from the session:

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NYT sourcesThe New York Times finally has a new and (hopefully) improved process for handling stories using unnamed sources. The process is outlined in a memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy and Standards Editor Phil Corbett, and was reported Tuesday by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

The memo outlines which editors need to sign off on different types of uses of unnamed sources. As a frequent critic of the Times’ overuse of unnamed sources, I applaud the effort to be more demanding of reporters seeking to use them. I agree with Sullivan’s assessment:

This is a sensible, moderate and necessary plan. The devil, of course, is in the enforcement. The Times often has not done an effective job of carrying out the policy it already has, one element of which states that anonymous sources may be used only as “a last resort.”

If the Times editors uphold high standards in approving use of unnamed sources, the new process will be a huge step forward, ending the frivolous and needless use of confidential sources while still leaving the Times positioned to deal with informed source who sometimes are the only way to tell important stories on such matters as national security and law enforcement. (more…)

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Eric Nalder adviceIn last week’s post on interviewing reluctant sources, I cited Eric Nalder‘s advice on “ratcheting” to gradually get some or all of a source’s information on the record:

At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn’t too damning and say: ‘Now what about this thing you said here? Why can’t you say that on the record?’ If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: ‘Well, if you can say that on the record, why can’t you say this?’ And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.

Eric, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, responded on Facebook with more advice for dealing with reluctant sources (I added a link):

  1. If you already possess information the source would be curious about, use that to your advantage in approaching them. Former colleague Pete Carey approached a crucial source in New Orleans – post Katrina – and said, as the man was closing the door, “I didn’t come here to ask you questions, I just wanted to let you know what I know.” The door opened and the rest is history.
  2. Finish every initial encounter with the suggestion that the source will want to know – as time goes on – what you have discovered and what you plan to publish. Of course, you’ll need extensive personal information to re-contact them: cell phone number, home phone number, email address, home address, office address and, perhaps, some additional info (DOB, SSN) in case you lose track. I’ve gotten the whole nine yards that way. In one case, we were able to track a man’s criminal activity using what he gave me.
  3. Deeply background every source you approach, preferably ahead of time, and I mean scorched earth, without spooking the more sensitive ones.
  4. Sometimes my most aggressive backgrounding activities – including contacting neighbors, colleagues, etc. – have caused a reluctant source to contact me, instead of the other way around. People who contact you – rather than you contacting them – tend to be more supplicant, which can be an advantage to a reporter.
  5. Always ask sources for a list of their friends and enemies (sometimes this line of questioning requires subtlety). Then ask what each enemy would say about them.
  6. Never argue with a person about their reluctances. Simply interview those fears. You’ll be amazed at the results of that approach.
  7. In extreme cases – where sources must remain anonymous – get them to sign sworn affidavits. An added benefit — your readers will find these affiants more believe-able (see our Brock Adams investigation).
  8. Final point – the vast majority of sources should be on the record and all methods, including ratcheting, should be employed to assure that.

Thanks to Eric for adding this advice to what I offered in last week’s post. I also recommend reading his “Loosening Lips” handout, from the best workshop I ever attended on interviewing.

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In a couple of different contexts recently, I’ve had interesting discussions with journalists about the differences between dealing with confidential sources who are feeding you tips and using confidentiality to even start a conversation with a source who doesn’t want to talk to you.

However you handle confidential sources (as a reporter, an editor or a news organization), this is a fundamental difference that changes nearly everything about the situation and how you address it.

One simple example: My friend Dan Gillmor argues that journalists should reveal the identities of unnamed sources who lie to them. He makes some excellent points, and I think that could and perhaps should be part of the agreement with an eager source who contacts a reporter and wants to leak information to you. But I think the consequence of breaking your promise of confidentiality gives you no chance to persuade a reluctant source to tell you anything. Beyond the issue of intentional lying, part of the source’s reluctance might be that he or she has incomplete knowledge, or only second-hand information. If errors on the source’s part will be treated as lies to be publicly rebuked, you’re not getting that interview. The source doesn’t want to talk to you anyway; confidentiality is the only way to start a conversation.

The dynamics are entirely different depending on the source’s willingness to talk. The reporter’s position shifts from demanding to pleading. (more…)

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I presented a webinar Wednesday for the Society of Professional Journalists on using (and reducing the use of unnamed sources).

I discussed points made in previous posts about using unnamed sources, including one on persuading people to talk for the record about difficult topics and another on using information from unnamed sources to persuade other sources to talk for the record. I also talked about the importance of power and eagerness in granting confidentiality, and suggested we should not quote spokespeople for powerful people and organizations without using their names.

I encourage using the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code tool, which has a section to guide decisions on how to use unnamed sources.

Here are slides for the webinar:

Interested in a workshop?

If you’d like a workshop or webinar for your organization, on unnamed sources or one of the many other topics I teach, contact me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.

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SullivanI’m disappointed that the New York Times screwed up again in its over-reliance on unnamed sources. But I’m pleased that this screwup finally appears to have prompted a Times examination of this biggest weakness in our nation’s most important news organization.

Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who has been a more persistent and effective critic than I of the Times’ promiscuity with unnamed sources, reported today that mistakes in the Times reporting on the visa screening of terror-attack suspect Tashfeen Malik finally drew a commitment to act:

I talked on Friday to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to one of his chief deputies, Matt Purdy; and to the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton, who edited the article. All described what happened as deeply troubling. Mr. Baquet said that some new procedures need to be put in place, especially for dealing with anonymous sources, and he said he would begin working on that immediately.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

First I’ll note that Baquet visited LSU this month and addressed the use of unnamed sources in his Q&A with students and faculty after an address in the Holliday Forum.

Of course, that tweet oversimplifies what Baquet said in response to the question, but it was not a detailed response. He cited national security reporting as an area where using confidential sources is essential to the excellent reporting the Times has done through the years.

This was an important national security story, but those stories demand not only greater use of unnamed sources but greater insistence on documentation and verification from those sources and others.

I’m in the hospital and don’t have the strength to say much new about this. Sullivan covers it better than I would if I were at full speed. I’ll just quote Sullivan again (but you should read her full post), then link to previous posts about this persistent problem at the Times (followed by a late-Friday update and some Twitter response):

The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

Previous posts on NYT use of sources

Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources

New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections

New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards

Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories

Applause to the New York Times for effective use of an on-the-record source

Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting

Jonathan Landay elaborates on Judith Miller’s flawed Iraq reporting

Do I despair for the New York Times? No, but I’m often disappointed and pleased

Eric Nalder responds

About the same time that I was posting this, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder replied on Facebook to my post about Sullivan’s original post (I hadn’t yet shared this post there). His advice on vetting investigative stories is helpful and important as the Times reassesses its use of unnamed sources and its verification of what they tell you. With Eric’s permission, I am adding his comment to this post:

Nalder

Nalder absolutely nails the Times’ failure here. The reporters should have been demanding of the sources and the editors should have been demanding of the reporters: Show me a tweet. Show me a screen grab. If we’re reporting that our visa screening process missed her open embrace of jihad, we need to show that threat, even if it’s in a foreign language. We’re the New York Times, we can find translators.

Nalder, by the way, far surpasses my own journalistic credentials and those of the vast majority of New York Times reporters. He won Pulitzers for investigative reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and on corruption in a federal housing program for Native Americans. He knows how to nail down facts on important stories.

I have cited Nalder before on his effective use of “ratcheting” to persuade reluctant sources to go on the record. It’s a technique that probably wouldn’t work on a national-security story like this, but it illustrates the sophistication of his experience and technique in this area.

If I were Dean Baquet, I might start addressing this topic by asking Nalder if he’s available to do an investigation of Times’ reporters dealings with unnamed sources and the vetting by Times reporters and editors of the information that sources provide.

Twitter responses

End notes

Margaret Sullivan: Sullivan also told Poynter today that she will complete her run as public editor when her second two-year contract expires this September. On this issue and more, she has been far and away the best public editor the Times has had (and the others were all good). We first met nearly 10 years ago when she was editor of the Buffalo News. I don’t know what her next step would be, but if I were hiring a newsroom leader, journalism dean (or endowed chair), media critic, columnist, media organization executive or almost any other journalism job, she’d be at the top of my list of people to talk to. I’ll be interested to see where she goes next and wish her well in whatever lies ahead.

My hospital stay. This is my first blog post here in 13 days. I’m not sure if that’s a record hiatus since I started this blog, but if not, I bet it’s close. My stem-cell transplant has been a rough experience, with more than a week where I could barely muster the energy for a few emails or social media posts a day, if that. But the cells are making new, healthy blood. I may be home next week, and I’ll definitely be blogging again before the end of the year.

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Update: This post has been updated three times since originally posting, most recently on Sept. 3. Updates can be found in boldface.

Last week I noted that the New York Times consistently fails to meet its own standards regarding unnamed sources and linking to digital sources of content.

I invited responses from Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and other Times staffers mentioned in the post. None of them responded on the record, except an email from Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who said she “may respond later.” She had earlier told me on Facebook that she was considering another post on unnamed sources, an issue she has addressed multiple times. Yes, it did amuse me that the only other response I received on a post that dealt with anonymous sources* started with the words “off the record.”

I followed up the next day with another post on linking. I wasn’t planning a follow-up on unnamed sources, unless anyone from the Times responded.

I don’t have a lot more to say about unnamed sources today. But I must note that the Times made two embarrassing and significant corrections on its coverage of possible investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails (or rumored or speculated investigation; we don’t know, because the Times’ sources have been so wrong on this and so poorly identified).

Update: Sullivan blogged about the corrections this morning. She makes excellent points and I won’t belabor them here, except to make this one point: 

Sullivan quotes Times deputy executive editor Matt Purdy as saying, “We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong.”

Does that sound familiar? Where have I heard that before? From another Times staffer, actually. Remember who said, “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong”? That was Judith Miller.

I won’t elaborate here on Judith Miller, but if you’ve forgotten about how she damaged the Times’ reputation, I have several links at the end of this story. As I’ve said repeatedly, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories.

Another update: Newsweek’s Kurt Eichewald has a fascinating analysis of the Times’ errors and corrections.

We don’t try to persuade sources to go on the record or find other sources who will speak for the record as a courtesy to the curious. We do it for credibility, accuracy and accountability. Sometimes people with valuable, accurate information have valid reasons (fear of losing their jobs or because they are breaking the law by telling us, for instance). Other times, reporters are being manipulated by liars with agendas. Or sort-of honest people who don’t really know the facts are telling reporters what they think they know, but demand confidentiality to avoid accountability.

I don’t expect anyone from the Times to respond to me on this issue. But someone at the Times should reconsider whether that newsroom has grown too trusting of unreliable sources. The “senior government officials” cited didn’t deserve the Times’ trust. So why does the Times deserve ours?

Corrections on the New York Times' story on Hillary Clinton's emails.

Corrections on the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

(more…)

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The New York Times often and flagrantly violates its own standards for attribution.

Executive Editor Dean Baquet ignored my call earlier this year for him to lose his famous temper about the Times’ casual and inexcusable promiscuity in the use of unnamed sources. I will try again (and invite him to respond), only this time I’ll include another issue of attribution: linking to digital sources.

First two disclaimers:

  1. I’ve written a lot about these two subjects before, both regarding journalism in general and regarding the Times. I apologize for any repetition. I will try to minimize and include links to previous posts at the end (and sprinkle them where relevant in this post).
  2. The Times is unquestionably, in my view, the most outstanding organization in journalism, with some of the highest standards in journalism. That’s what makes its daily disregard of its own standards in these two important areas so maddening.

I am writing about these attribution issues because they collided this week in two outstanding posts by others: (more…)

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T. Becket Adams of the Washington Examiner quoted me in a good story about using unnamed sources.

While the story focused on the New York Times, Adams did not specifically mention my encouragement that Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet should get angry about his newsroom’s excessive use on unnamed sources.

If you’re interested in the issue, I encourage you to read the Adams piece, which includes quotes as well from former Times Editor Bill Keller, Washington Post media bogger Erik Wemple (a former TBD colleague), Huffington Post media blogger Jason Linkins, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan and Jack Shafer (who is joining Politico). I’m pleased to be included in such company, and recommend the story for a thoughtful overview of issues relating to unnamed sources.

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I have more advice for Dean Baquet: It’s time to pound a wall again. You need to get angry about the promiscuous use of unnamed sources by the New York Times staff and let your staff know that the practice is hurting your organization’s credibility and it has to stop.

Baquet generally doesn’t need my advice. Long before becoming Times Executive Editor, he had soared higher in the journalism stratosphere than I ever will. But Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has identified heavy and lax use of unnamed sources as a serious issue for the newsroom.

And the Times did follow a bit of my advice later last year, when I called on it to a better job of linking, and got a bit of response, not from Baquet, but from Standards Editor Phil Corbett and Editor for News Presentation Patrick LaForge, who urged Times staff to link more and better (linking to me and citing one of my examples). So I’m trying again.

Baquet didn’t follow my advice last fall when I suggested that he should tweet more. His response was thoughtful and spurred a lot of discussion. But he still has tweeted only twice. I suggest a series of tweets on identification of sources. That should get their attention. That and a little fist-pounding.

I have long contended that newsroom conversations are more important than ethics codes when it comes to achieving ethical journalism, and the New York Times and unnamed sources are Exhibit A.

The Times’ 2008 Guidelines on Integrity state on the topic of “anonymity and its devices”:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having ‘insisted on anonymity,’ we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources – does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

That’s a sound policy (though I’ll comment on it in more detail in an appendix at the end of this post).

A 2010 reminder to the staff from Standards Editor Phil Corbett demanded better explanations of the reasons for granting confidentiality to sources and reminded Times staffers of the policy about informing editors about who sources are.

The Times problem is not the policy, but the fact that the newsroom’s common practice doesn’t follow the policy. The Corbett note acknowledged that problem, and it continues egregiously, as Sullivan’s AnonyWatch posts this year have documented. In her Oct. 18 post, she wrote:

I launched a feature this year called “AnonyWatch,” intended to draw attention to the gratuitous use of unnamed sources, and I’ve written on this many times, to little apparent avail. The overuse of anonymous sources still flourishes in The Times.

Her year-end AnonyWatch roundup, published last week, should be embarrassing for the Executive Editor and his staff. Sullivan’s post says Baquet had planned to deal with the issue:

The executive editor Dean Baquet told me last fall that he was about to urge his department heads to quash such quotations, in keeping with the Times policy of using anonymous sourcing only as a last resort.

In that Oct. 18 post, Sullivan had this to say about that conversation:

I talked to the executive editor, Dean Baquet, about this subject last week, asking him why Times editors and reporters don’t follow the paper’s own written rules, which allow granting anonymity only as a last resort. He agreed that editors need to tighten up on this: “It is something we need to be more vigilant about.”

Mr. Baquet said that, until that point, he had not spoken forcefully to department heads about the practice but that he intended to do so at their next meeting. He said that the use of confidential sources is sometimes necessary and important. “They’re never going to go away,” he said, “but we need to limit it more than we do.”

Baquet took some heat, probably deserved, for a wall-slamming temper tantrum recounted by Politico in 2013, and I’ll bet he’s been practicing anger management pretty well, including probably at that department-head meeting, because the Dec. 29 Sullivan post documents more “ridiculous” use of unnamed sources.

A reader’s letter cited the Brooks Barnes story, When the Red Carpet Is Rolled Up, a story about Hollywood parties that included this passage:

‘Nobody really had time for me — it was all about the new people,’ she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was afraid of looking bad.

If that didn’t or doesn’t generate a fist-pounding, wall-banging temper tantrum from the Executive Editor, he has taken his anger management too far. In fact the whole Sullivan post should be worth several bangs of the fist. If Times staffers showered like baseball teams do, I’d suggest an everyone-in-the-shower scare-em tantrum straight out of Bull Durham (see the video clip toward the end of this post). Times staffers aren’t kids and they are playing in the big leagues. But they have been lollygaggers of late in granting confidentiality to sources.

Baquet needs to set the bar for use of unnamed sources really high at the Times. Given what I presume to be a lack of showers and bats at the Times, I think a temper tantrum and some tweets should do the trick. He knows how to handle the temper tantrum. But, since I have a bit more experience on Twitter, I’ll provide some help.

You’re welcome to retweet these yourself, Dean. I’d be honored to be your first retweet(s). Just hit the little double-arrow box on the bottom line of the tweet, between the curved reply arrow and the star you’d use to “favorite” a tweet. But, flattering as RT’s would be, I’d suggest putting them in your own words (you’ll get a few more characters if you cut out my repetition of “@deanbaquet tantrum”). The points you make may differ from mine, but I will cheer them, as long as you get mad and address this embarrassment to your great newsroom.

I’ll suggest 15 tweets for you, then add more of my own to contribute more detail to the conversation I hope to start.

If you’d like some help from the Times staff in composing effective tweets, I recommend consulting with Daniel Victor or Karen Workman, two Twitter aces (and former colleagues of mine).

Here are the tweets I recommend, with a few notes by me added between some tweets:

Cut out my long lead-in there, Dean, and you’ll have room to add a link to Sullivan review, for any staff members who might have missed it in the holiday week, maybe even enough characters to add the “ridiculous reasons” phrase from the headline.

Just the process of writing these notes should deter lots of the promiscuity with confidentiality. I can’t imagine a reporter who wouldn’t burst out laughing in chagrin and searching for the delete key about halfway through the draft of the note to the editor explaining the importance of the Hollywood quote, the efforts to get it on the record and the reason for requesting and granting confidentiality.

Dean, your staff follows you on Twitter, even though you don’t tweet. Your silence on Twitter so far has set you up to grab attention when you finally tweet again, and this is a topic about which the Executive Editor of the New York Times needs to grab attention, with the public, the staff and journalists everywhere. A string of tweets about unnamed sources will resound through the newsroom and beyond louder than a fist pounding the wall or an armful of bats clattering in the shower.

More tweets about confidentiality

I think the suggestions above are plenty for me to offer for Baquet directly. The tweets below are simply more contributions from me to the conversation I hope he will start.(But, Dean, if you want to retweet any of them …) I will publish the post after I’ve added the tweets above, and will update this after each of the tweets, noting when I’ve finished the updates:

I should note that the story discussed in that link above was a highly competitive 1995 story the Times was working on, too. I kicked the asses of the Times, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other competitors on that story. Pushing to get sources on the record can take time and cause you to fall behind stories when other organizations don’t follow the same standards. But you also can get outstanding stories they’ll wish they had.

 

Appendices to this post

I considered breaking this into two posts, but all these notes are related to the post above, so I decided to add them here, to make this an even longer post.

I welcome responses

First, I will be emailing have emailed Baquet, Sullivan, Corbett, LaForge and Barnes, inviting any or all of them to respond. I will add their responses if any do. I will add short responses here, but if anyone responds at some length, I will break them out into separate guest posts (as I did with Baquet’s response last year about Twitter), and link to them here. If Baquet responds in tweets, I will either embed them here or curate them in a separate post. If you see this before you receive my email or tweet inviting your response, consider this your invitation.

Sullivan is the first to respond publicly (thanks!):

Baquet told me by email that he’ll take a look, but has not responded after reading. Added late Jan. 5 from that original email: “I put you in that group that disagrees with me but wants the times to do what you see as better. So no worries,” Baquet said in that message. I will update if he responds further.

LaForge’s response: “Margaret covers this pretty thoroughly.”

Thanks to Sullivan (and a suggestion for the Times)

Next, I’ll add my appreciation to Margaret Sullivan for this brief passage in her AnonyWatch year-end review:

As I emphasize every time I write about this, anonymous (or confidential) sourcing is sometimes both necessary and important.

I have no idea whether this was a nod to my campaign to get journalists to start using
“confidential sources,” rather than “anonymous sources,” to describe the sources whose identities we know but choose not to publish. I made that case in some detail in a 2013 post already cited above, so I won’t repeat it here and didn’t want to detour the post above, but I want to note it here and thank Sullivan for using the term.

Jay Rosen tweets on unnamed sources

Next, here are some tweets from Jay Rosen about the issue of unnamed sources, which helped inspire this post, along with the Sullivan year-end review. Jay is a powerful and persistent voice on this issue:

The conversation continues on Twitter

I will update through the day with others’ tweets on the topic. I love this example:

Jay, of course, is continuing the conversation:

And others are weighing in thoughtfully, too:

Times Guidelines for Integrity

Again, here’s the passage on anonymity from the 2008 Times Guidelines for Integrity, this time with a few recommendations from me. My first recommendation is to change the heading of the section,”Anonymity and its Devices.” As noted in greater detail in the link above about my campaign to change how journalists discuss unnamed sources, in nearly all cases when we would use a source as anything more than a tipster, the sources are not anonymous to Times reporters. The reporters know them well but grant them confidentiality. The result makes the source anonymous to the reader, but I believe we further hurt our credibility by using the term ourselves when we vet these sources thoroughly. We don’t quote anonymous phone callers or Internet commenters whose identities we can’t learn, though we may use their tips to find information we can verify. Those are truly anonymous sources. So I’d change all uses of that word below. Here’s that section on”Anonymity and its Devices,” with other comments:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. (Buttry note: Just a digital update: print should be changed to publish.) When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) (Buttry note: I like that this passage is shorter than previous Times policies. But I think it still needs a stronger statement about situations that justify confidentiality. My suggestion: Reporters should grant confidentiality in most cases as a path to obtaining on-the-record information, either from later persuasion with the source or using the source to guide you to documentation and/or sources who will speak for the record. Opinions have no validity without names. We should use only information from confidential sources, and only when we are confident they have firsthand access to that information. Factors to use in granting confidentiality or in using information from confidential interviews include whether the source is more or less powerful than those whom the information could hurt and whether the source is eager or reluctant to give information to the Times. Reliance on confidential sources does not lessen our responsibility to ensure the accuracy of our stories. In fact, the lack of accountability for unnamed sources increases the reporter’s responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the information. Any story submitted for publication that uses any information from unnamed sources should include a note to the editor explaining why the information is important to Times readers, how the reporter tried to get the information on the record and why the source requested and the reporter granted confidentiality.)  The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having ‘insisted on anonymity,’ we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources – does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

 

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Many journalists and news organizations grant confidentiality too readily, sacrificing credibility in the quest of a story. But I think ESPN handled confidentiality responsibly in its reporting on the response by the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL to Ray Rice’s assault on his fiancée.

In a discussion on Facebook, Bryan Sears asked what I thought about ESPN’s use of unnamed sources:

I hate to call people out but Steve Buttry has some serious chops when it comes to the issue of use of anonymous sources and I’m hoping he’d be willing to contribute his thoughts about how ESPN used anonymous sources in the story and what it does to the credibility of the story and are the reporters able to adequately shore up the weaknesses inherent with the use of unnamed sources in such a controversial piece.

Two points before I address the question:

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Bryan.
  2. I avoid the term “anonymous sources” unless the source is actually unknown to the journalist (as some callers, emailers and online commenters are). We should never use information from those sources in stories because we have no way of judging their credibility. They can provide great tips, and I’ve written stories that started with truly anonymous sources, but we have to get the information from sources we trust, or we can’t use it. If a journalist knows the source, as ESPN clearly did, we have a basis of judging his or her credibility and motives for requesting confidentiality. As I’ve explained before, I prefer to call these sources confidential, unnamed or unidentified. I think those terms are more accurate than anonymous, and calling them anonymous hurts the credibility of our reporting. I’ll never win this fight to change journalism terminology, but I repeat my argument whenever I address the issue.

Now to Bryan’s question:

First, I should say that I can just evaluate what I see of the ESPN “Outside the Lines” report by Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenberg. The reporters did not tell us everything about what they did to verify sources’ stories. Nor could they. That’s the nature of confidentiality. My analysis will involve some speculation and I might change some of the opinions expressed here if I knew more. I will invite the reporters to comment on this post, though I understand that they may not be able to shed much light. (more…)

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