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Being in Sync on Anonymous Source Rules

By Andy Alexander

Sunday’s ombudsman’s column prompted a note to The Post’s newsroom today urging the staff to be more vigilant in dealing with anonymous sources.

My column disclosed that some Post standards on confidential sources are being ignored or unevenly applied, and that many staffers aren’t familiar with the newsroom’s policies.

Today’s staff note from Peter Perl, the editor in charge of personnel and training, said the Post has “good policies, but they need to be followed to be of any use to our readers and to our reputation.”

I thought it was especially important that his note also stressed that reporters and sources need to be in sync on the ground rules for sourcing. At a minimum, both sides need to agree on what it means to go “off the record” or “on background.” Beyond that, they need to discuss the degree to which the confidential source will be protected.

These kinds of up-front discussions are important because many people who provide The Post with confidential information are unfamiliar with what it means to be a “anonymous source.” It’s something that Post Sports editor Matt Vita raised last week when I was conducting interviews for the column. When negotiating whether to grant anonymity, Vita said, reporters need to “stop sources and ask them: Do you really understand what this means?”

In my experience, it rarely happens. Aside from avoiding subsequent confusion, there are important legal reasons for the reporter and source to be in accord. Lack of clarity can caused problems if prosecutors or plaintiff’s attorneys seek a judge’s order to compel disclosure of the source as part of a criminal investigation or a civil law suit.

Many states have so-called “shield laws” that protect reporters from being forced to reveal their sources. But no such shield exists at the federal level, and the Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment does not protect reporters from being required by a court to reveal the source of information.

That makes it all the more critical that there is no misunderstanding between reporters and sources regarding information provided on a confidential basis. As Vita noted, it is incumbent on the reporter to make sure the source understands the parameters of their relationship.

In the case of Post reporters, they need to tell the source that the newspaper’s written rules require that at least one editor know who provided any information that is published. Post policies are clear: “The source of anything that appears in the paper will be known to at least one editor.”

At the same time, reporters need to let sources know that federal law currently does not protect journalists from being compelled to divulge sources.

In researching Sunday’s column, I was heartened to find that on major pieces there appears to be general compliance with The Post's rule that at least one editor know the source of confidential information that appears in a story.

National security editor Cameron W. Barr said that on “sensitive” stories “I will go through the sources so that I know who everybody is.” He added: “I regard myself as the frontline guardian of credibility” on national security stories.

But my research found that many routine stories made it through the editing process without reporters being asked to identify their confidential sources. A handful of young Post reporters said they are rarely, if ever, asked.

History tells us that even veteran reporters have been caught fabricating anonymous sources.

“Young or old, reporters can be dangerous,” Barr observed. That’s why it’s so important for editors to scrutinize all information that was obtained on a confidential basis, regardless of the reporter involved.

By Andy Alexander  | August 17, 2009; 3:08 PM ET
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Next: Controversy Over a Sunday Story


You don't need to attribute sources if you make it up as you go along.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 17, 2009 10:45 PM | Report abuse

This is why you need to justify the anonymous source with an identifiable source in the story. You cannot go to press with a SINGLE anonyomous source, regardless if an editor knows who it is! The editor cannot be judge & jury. The editor is NOT GOD! If the White House "leaks" something on condition of anonymity, you cannot take that as FACT! You need a second source, with a name, who can vouch for it as a fact! Otherwise you are passing on a press release or a trial balloon--for crying out loud, don't you get it???? An anonymous source is a minefield. Don't walk through it!

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | August 18, 2009 12:37 AM | Report abuse

Part of the problem with the Post's use of anonymous sources is differing standards for "major pieces" and "routine stories." Who draws the distinction? And where?

It all boils down to public trust, which is major and, at the same time, routine. In other words, if an anonymous source is deemed essential, the level of editorial scrutiny should be uniform.

The Post's high- and low-water marks --Watergate and "Jimmy's World" -- both involved anonymous sources and both involved Bob Woodward, the first as a reporter and the second as an editor. Each time, a Pulitzer Prize was won by the Post, but the second one had to be given back. Is there a better argument for due diligence?

The Post's credibility is on the line every time it uses an anonymous source. That's too precious to leave to chance.

Posted by: Viewfinder | August 18, 2009 12:39 AM | Report abuse
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Posted by: webtusker | August 18, 2009 2:48 AM | Report abuse

Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment does not protect reporters from being required by a court to reveal the source of information.

You have the right to remain silent. Too bad all the morons don't just remain silent. Tthey can be silenced, but it will cost you. You can't hit people for nothing. Silence is still golden. The despots keep expanding and the badges are more busy than ever. I shot a man in Reno just to watch them die. So sue me!

Posted by: Dermitt | August 18, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Good post. Of course, I don't expect it to change anything, but at least you're trying.

Posted by: tresangelas | August 18, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Good Post. Make a killing and change everything. Business is war. Some people can't be killed. They keep trying. Gotta jet off for now.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 18, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm constantly amazed by the Washington Post telling us about fussing and fretting about the most fine-tuned details of journalistic ethics, while at the same time allowing George Will to write entire columns in which he makes up most of what they contain, in direct contradiction to the facts. Facts which are so plainly available and often pointed out by those he wrote about who write to complain that he distorted or misquoted them.

Honestly, when you read what George Will writes here on a regular basis, you're left just assuming that the Post has no ethics rules whatsoever. How could they?

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | August 18, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

The Ombudsman comments on the inclusion of a comment from a Republican who spoke on condition of anonymity. The policy requires, we are told, that an editor must be aware of the source and that the reason for remaining anonymous must be stated. OK, that seems a reasonable policy.


Later in the same article, we find this:

"One Democratic consultant not affiliated with either candidate said Sestak's silence regarding Specter's raucous town hall could undermine that argument.

"'I think Sestak could've shown he is putting party ahead of politics by somehow coming to Specter's defense,' said the source, who has worked extensively in the state. 'It seemed like a good opportunity to reinforce the Sestak message that he's for party and principle ahead of personal gain.'"

Why was this passage not challenged? The source is not identified. The reason was not stated, not even "on condition of anonymity." Is this source more reliable, or more legitimate? If so, why?

Posted by: fi3ch | August 19, 2009 6:39 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Andrew. Stay on Perl's back about this, it's important.

Posted by: JimC45 | August 19, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

It would be a good policy for all reporters to make it clear that if the source lies or deliberately passes on false information that all agreements of confidentiality are off.

I can understand a reporter protecting a good source. What I don't understand is reporters who protect sources who lie to them and use them to disseminate a political agenda.

Posted by: hgillette | August 19, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Twitter is hacked.
I figure paper is still important. Twitter is getting crazy. I post a picture and it ends up in Brazil. This could get interesting.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 19, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with good 'ol BillEPilgrim.

The Post makes a good show of fretting, but it is often used by it's sources and it's stars routinely engage in propaganda.

Obfuscation and false dichotomies are the rule of the day at the WaPo, and I doubt it will change until this generation of "journalists" and accountants is replaced by the generation who matriculated during the Bush fiascos.

Posted by: protagoras | August 19, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Major story or not, the piece on the White House attacking liberal Democrats ( which is chock full of anonymous attacks is just ridiculous.

If the White House has a problem with the public option and the people who support it, they should say it out publicly and the Post shouldn't let them hide behind anonymity.

Posted by: artbrodsky | August 19, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

In today's lead story, "Debate's Path Caught Obama by Surprise," no fewer than four people -- "a senior White House adviser," "another top aide," "one Democratic strategist involved in coordinating the pro-reform message" and "one Democratic Obama ally," subsequently referred to as an "activist" -- are quoted anonymously.

Does the ombudsman consider this excessive or par for the course?

Posted by: Viewfinder | August 19, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Please re-visit this entire sourcing issue in light of Ceci Connolly's anonymously sourced health care story, Andrew. It's shocking that it appeared the same week as your column on the topic, and struck many readers as a direct assault on you.

Posted by: TeddySanFran | August 20, 2009 3:25 AM | Report abuse

Post Crash Fashion Show this morning
All models are anonymous and all rights are reserved. Sink the pink and drink the drink. It's old fashioned. Cheers baby!

Posted by: Dermitt | August 21, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

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