‘N.Y. Times’ Squandering Readers’ Trust by ‘Misusing’ Anonymous Quotes, Public Editor Says

By: E&P Staff

Despite promises to limit the use of anonymous sources in stories, The New York Times continues to quote unnamed sources often and “casually” on occasions when the information is available on the public record or adds nothing to the reporting, the paper’s public editor charged in his weekend column.

The Times, wrote Clark Hoyt, “allows unnamed people to provide quotes of marginal news value and to remain hidden with little real explanation of their motives, their reliability, or the reasons why they must be anonymous.”

Hoyt addressed the perennial topic of anonymous sources after a series of recent stories brought objections from readers.

“I have received complaints about recent articles in which unnamed sources were allowed to 1) accuse a real estate agent of racial discrimination, 2) provide a letter from a dead man in the midst of a political controversy, and 3) discuss the press strategy of a politician who seeks to manipulate reporters with, among other tactics, off-the-record phone calls,” he wrote.

In the first example, a 90-year-old real estate broker in Brooklyn was lauded by an unnamed “some” who said she saved landmark homes in the neighborhood while “others says she unfairly steered minority buyers from the best properties.”

Wrote Hoyt: “Ben Smith, a reporter for Politico – who uses anonymous sources, and has been burned by them – wrote to say he was shocked that The Times would put Gallagher in the position of denying a faceless charge of racism, one that could get her in serious trouble if it were true. Smith, who lives in the neighborhood and knows Gallagher, said, ‘It strikes me as a classic trick, unworthy of The Times.’

The unnamed references in the article were defended by a Times editor as a legitimate summary of the split opinion of people who spoke on the record.

“I do not think even an old charge of racism against a broker can be handled that way,” Hoyt wrote. “Someone has to stand up, and the allegation has to be reported out. Were there complaints to a licensing board? Were minority buyers kept out?”

Hoyt said anonymous sources can be the only way to get certain stories, and he cited the Times’ reporting on the actions of New York Governor David Paterson and his aides in reacting to a domestic dispute involving one of those aides.

“The paper’s reporting has proved true at every turn – prompting high-level resignations, the end of Paterson’s election campaign and a criminal investigation,” Hoyt wrote.

But the misuse of anonymous sources in other stories undercuts those occasions when they are necessary, he added. “That leap (of faith by readers) would be easier if The Times did not squander readers’ trust by using unnamed sources so often and so casually in far less compelling cases,” Hoyt wrote.

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