‘USA Today’ Drastically Reduces Its Use of Anonymous Sources

By: Joe Strupp

One year after instituting tighter controls on confidential sourcing, USA Today has reduced the use of anonymous sources in its pages by 75%, according to Editor Ken Paulson, who implemented the tougher rules shortly after becoming editor.

“We still probably average about three or four anonymous sources in our copy each week,” Paulson told E&P. “But it used to average about a dozen per week.”

Paulson, former director of the First Amendment Center, took over the USA Today editorship in April 2004, just weeks after former editor Karen Jurgensen stepped down in the wake of the Jack Kelley scandal.

Kelley quit in January 2004 after questions arose over the validity of numerous stories he had written going back several years. His departure prompted an in-depth internal investigation that revealed he had routinely fabricated elements of dozens of stories and sought to cover up his misdeeds, while the paper had systematic problems with editorial reviews.

Among Paulson’s first acts as editor was to implement a new anonymous-source policy. Previously, reporters wishing to use a confidential or anonymous source had to inform his or her direct supervisor of the person’s identity. Now, one of the paper’s five managing editors or a higher ranking editor has to sign off on the use of each unnamed source, Paulson said.

“The managing editor has to decide why the news value outweighs the issue of anonymity,” Paulson added. “We realize you cannot live up to your watchdog role unless you occasionally use sources who are afraid to speak out on the record. But the key is to ensure that what we do publish, we have absolute faith in.”

Paulson also must be informed at the end of each day about each case of an anonymous source being used.

At the time he instituted the policy, Paulson created the position of standards editor, someone who tracks the anonymous sources in the paper each day. He said that person, Adell Crowe, has tabulated 62 instances of anonymous sourcing since the beginning of the year, an average of less than four per week.

“It is realizing that every [anonymous source] is looked at closely, every use is scrutinized,” Crowe told E&P about how the cutback occurred. “It has to rise to a level of critical information added to the story. If it is not that critical to a story, don’t use it.”

Paulson agreed. “The way it is designed is to get the important stuff in the paper, but require that a managing editor make the assessment that we trust the information and that it is an important story,” he declared. “That means we lose some color, some inside baseball stuff. But when we use anonymous sources, it is for all of the right reasons.”

Paulson said he could not come up with examples of stories that had not made it in due to anonymous sourcing that was deemed insufficient, saying those decisions are made at a lower level.

News of the anonymous-source reduction comes at a time when such sourcing is coming under fire in the wake of the Newsweek retraction. (This week, the magazine retracted a story about abuses at Guantanamo Bay based on a lone confidential source.) In addition, several reporters remain under scrutiny from federal investigators for refusing to name sources in the Valerie Plame case, an issue now seeking a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

USA Today, which launched in 1982, banned all anonymous sourcing for several years in the mid-1980s, Paulson said. But, he said that changed after editors realized a complete ban was not practical. “It was determined it would not work,” Paulson said. “We felt this approach was the right thing to do.”

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