Washington Post Defends Anonymous Source Policies p.9

By: Kelvin Childs Stung by criticism that it used an unusually high number of secret sources
for its reports about the Clinton sex controversies, the Post talks back
In response to a growing criticism of its widespread use of anonymous sources in recent coverage of White House sex controversies, the Washington Post has published a statement defending the practices of its reporters and editors.
In a column entitled "A Word to Post Readers: More About Our Sources and Methods" in the March 15 Outlook section of the Post, managing editor Robert G. Kaiser explained to readers that "We do not print unconfirmed stories just because they are juicy, or just to beat our competition."
"Some readers," he wrote, "complain that we must be allowing interested parties to color our coverage by leaking selective information. Of course, we cannot be certain this never happens, but we work hard to prevent it. No reporter at the Post has been handed a juicy story during the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky episode."

Not following own stylebook?
Kaiser noted that the Post ombudsman has often complained that the paper is not following its own stylebook rules about sourcing ? using two or more sources for information, and getting nearly everything on the record. He said, "Those policies have not changed. We adhere to those standards." Ombudsman Geneva Overholser, who has addressed the topic several times in her Post column, said, "I'm very pleased that Kaiser did it, and that's all I have to say."
The Post has also been singled out among major papers as using more anonymous sources and fewer on-the-record sources while covering the Lewinsky matter, according to a study from the Committee of Concerned Journalists. That study found that the Post's first six days of coverage of the Lewinsky story used fewer attributed sources and more anonymous sources than other newspapers. Only 16% of the Post's statements were attributed to named sources; 38% were attributed to multiple anonymous sources; and 26% were attributed to a single anonymous source.
"We realize many readers are infuriated by anonymous sourcing," Kaiser continued. "Many journalists are, too. But we also think our readers should know that sometimes granting anonymity to sources is the only way to acquire publishable information on matters of interest and importance to them."
He took particular note of reader complaints about a March 5 Post story revealing the content of Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones suit. That deposition had been sealed by federal Judge Susan Webber Wright, who is presiding over the case in Little Rock, Ark.
The deposition story, by Peter Baker, did not reveal how the Post acquired the document. "Our story was attributed to 'a detailed account' of Clinton's deposition, an admittedly frustrating and uninformative formulation," Kaiser wrote. The deposition became public eight days after Baker's story, when Jones included it with her response to Clinton's motion to dismiss the case.

Hearing from readers
Kaiser said he was inspired to write because of "the comments from readers who we heard from in various ways, who were particularly set off by the story on the Clinton deposition, the Peter Baker story. It was clear that a lot of people were upset and didn't understand why we're doing what we were doing."
Because Clinton's deposition was under seal, some readers complained that the Post's sources "must have been tendentious, unreliable, unethical or had violated the law by evading Judge Wright's order," Kaiser wrote. But he stated that the media are not subject to such orders, and that "we and our lawyers believe that judges in America cannot gag the press, whose freedom is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution."
Up to a point, Kaiser is correct, said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press. "As far as the first statement ? right, such orders don't cover the media," she said. "As far as the second ? well, the courts don't do so very often, but they have tried, as CNN learned with the Noriega tapes."
In 1990, CNN acquired tape recordings of discussions between deposed and imprisoned Panamanian dictator Manual Noriega and his lawyers. A federal court ordered CNN not to broadcast the tapes but CNN ignored the order and, after airing the tapes, was convicted for contempt and fined.
Kirtley said the Post isn't likely to be found in contempt, but that whoever leaked the material to the paper might be at risk if the court were to determine who it was. "There is no federal shield law, and the courts have varied widely on their interpretation of the law," she said. However,
the judge has indicated little interest in seeking leakers, and the public release of the deposition takes some of the heat off the Post, she said.
Post columnist William Raspberry agreed. "The leak on the Clinton depostion seemed to be complete ? that is, it is useful information for readers to have," he said. But Raspberry questioned the practice of leaking and the motives of leakers. In a column that appeared two days before Kaiser's piece, Raspberry wondered why reporters are not trying to ferret out the sources of leaks to competing news organizations. "Wouldn't it be something if, say, a Washington Post reporter were able to nail down the source of a New York Times leak ? and vice versa?" he wrote.
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