Being in Sync on Anonymous Source Rules
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.
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