Lively Discussion on Anonymous Sourcing Breaks Out at ASNE

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By: Joe Strupp

Anonymous sources must be defended in the wake of new government efforts to uncover them, but also used only sparingly so they don’t reduce the credibility of newspapers, a group of editors and reporters from some of the nation?s top newspapers agreed Wednesday.

During a panel discussion at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference here, participants, including several who helped craft a new anonymous sourcing handbook provided by ASNE, urged newsroom leaders to fight the growing backlash on anonymous sourcing, evidenced most recently by the firing of a CIA agent who reportedly helped Dana Priest of The Washington Post.

?Ever since the Valerie Plame case became an issue in Washington, there has been a movement building,? said Bob Steele of The Poynter Institute, referring to the crackdown on sourcing. ?It reached a crest last year as [special prosecutor] Patrick Fitzgerald sought to subpoena both Matt Cooper and Judith Miller when an anonymous source used reporters and their best intentions to do a diabolical leak.?

That led to an intense discussion of how to draw the line between a valid use of such sourcing and an abuse of the right as a journalistic tool.

Deborah Howell, ombudsman for the Post and a former D.C. bureau chief for Newhouse Newspapers, stressed oversight by editors. ?The editor is the most important person in this decision-making process,? she said. ?Editors let too many anonymous sources in the paper without a good reason. Is it worth the newspaper?s credibility? Has the information been checked with other sources??

Howell added that, too often, anonymous sources are used for ?toss-off, almost smartass quotes,? adding that ?editors have to step in.? But she pointed out that the highest percentage of anonymous sources are not in national stories, as some believe, but in sports, with national stories ranking fourth.

Ken Paulson, who took over as editor of USA Today two years ago after the Jack Kelley scandal, noted that his paper?s policy requires a managing editor to know the identity of every confidential source. Reporters seeking to use them must reveal that source?s track record, if any, proof of knowledge, and explain why the information could not be gotten on the record. ?There is way too much anonymous sourcing, particularly in D.C.,? said Paulson. ?Every time we use anonymous sources, our credibility is reduced a little bit.?

Mike Fancher, executive editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said reporters must be pushed to get sources on the record, even if an anonymous source is used. ?[Reporters] want to get to the point where their credibility is not undermined by anonymity,? he said.

Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, who has been subpoenaed himself for sources he has used, countered the credibility argument, noting that some stories cannot be gotten any other way. ?If you are covering national security, you are dealing pretty much with a community that can?t be quoted,? he said. ?In my experience, you can?t cover it without confidential sources.? But, he stressed, that does not mean they should be used casually.

Al Siegal, a longtime New York Times editor who was involved in that newspaper?s sourcing policy overhaul several years ago, explained the use of such sourcing in a controversial story about abortion clinics in Arkansas. The story did not identify all of the sources because many were pregnant women who feared retaliation. ?We realized that if he confined it to women who would let their names be used, he would be limited,? Siegal said about the reporter involved, who identified some women with only first names and even initials. ?I think readers came away feeling they were well-served.?

When the discussion turned to questions from the audience, one person asked about the recent dispute in Washington over government briefings that are often held off-the-record. ?We simply don?t give confidentiality to government officials who won?t say publicly what they say privately,? Fancher said. Howell agreed, noting that her paper had recently chosen not to participate in such briefings. ?It is important to get those briefings on the record,? she said.

Another audience member questioned how to deal with wire service stories that are written with a less-strict anonymous sourcing policy. ?We are absolute captives of the wires,? Fancher admitted. ?We have a policy to look at as many wires as we can, but it is unavoidable.?

Siegal, whose paper distributes much of its content via its own news service, suggested seeking clarification on such sources from the wire service involved. ?We don?t mind being asked,? he said.

Finally, discussion of a federal shield law arose, drawing support from almost every panelist. ?Anything helps,? said Paulson. Don Wycliff, former public editor of the Chicago Tribune and now on the staff of the University of Notre Dame, disagreed. ?I don?t think the First Amendment is ours to do with as we please,? he said in response to a federal shield law idea. ?To the extent that we would obtain protection for journalism, we contract coverage of the First Amendment from those citizens out there who are not able to call themselves journalists.?

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