Speaking on condition of anonymity

Posted Sept. 24, 2010, at 7:54 p.m.

The reliance — and often times, overreliance — on the anonymous source by the news media is a topic that can spark spirited discussions in newsrooms and journalism seminars.

Veteran reporters, taught that the anonymous source is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary for the good of mankind, generally bemoan the practice of quoting a faceless tipster. The younger crowd that came of age with an Internet that thrives on the anonymous sources and the unattributed quotation may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Most newspapers have guidelines on the matter, and most — including The New York Times — stray from those guidelines on occasion. A blurb in a recent Maine Press Association newsletter carried a link to Editor and Publisher magazine’s website, which published a Times memo to staffers on the subject.

The pitfalls in relying on the anonymous source are many, not the least of which is the “pat, formulaic expressions of why an anonymous source wants to be anonymous,” in the words of Times standards editor Phil Corbett. Such expressions are worse than no explanation at all, he believes, because they are uninformative “and give readers the impression that our anonymity rules are on autopilot.”

“Saying that a source insisted on anonymity because he was ‘not authorized’ to speak is usually stating the obvious, and is of little or no help to the reader,” Corbett wrote. Yet, research showed that the Times used that formulation nearly 300 times in the past year.

“Let’s stop using such rote formulas,” he suggested. “In lieu of such boilerplate, reporters and editors should in all cases discuss why the source wants anonymity,” and then let the reader know, via an “enlightening” explanation. Among examples of possible enlightened reasons for granting anonymity to a source, he included: “out of fear for his safety”; “because parties to the negotiations had promised to keep them confidential”; “because the company has threatened to fire workers who speak to the press”; and “to avoid antagonizing Official X.”

You’d have a hard sell to make many editors believe that “to avoid antagonizing Official X” is a legitimate reason for granting anonymity. I’m guessing that letting a source off the hook of identification for such a reason would seem about as legitimate to most editors I know as letting one remain anonymous because she otherwise would be dropped from the A-list of the Washington party circuit.

A grant of anonymity that always amuses is the one you occasionally see given some insecure spokesman on the back side of the globe — the more so when the source’s contribution is hardly the stuff of a decent sound bite. (“The explosion ‘rocked the barracks,’ said a young second lieutenant in the Zimbabwe National Guard, who demanded anonymity to avoid antagonizing Col. X.”)

The Times memo pointed out that having promised anonymity to a source, the paper must be careful in its enlightening explanation not to blow the source’s cover. Too many clues can spoil the broth. And they don’t get you a return engagement with the tipster anytime soon. How far would Woodward and Bernstein have gotten in cracking the infamous Watergate scandal if they had given up Deep Throat early on, hanging him out to twist slowly in the fickle winds of public recognition?

A more crucial aspect of the anonymous source situation for the reader is how to judge the source’s credibility. So Times staffers are encouraged to say as much as they can about how the source knows the information, and whether he or she has a dog in the hunt. Did he attend the meeting in question? Does she have a grudge against the company for firing her? And so forth.

The Times memo emphasizes the standard bottom line in the anonymous-source business: “We should resort to anonymous sources only for newsworthy information that we can’t report any other way. Anonymity should not be invoked for trivial, obvious or tangential information, or for quotes that add little of substance. Every time we rely on anonymity, we put some strain on our credibility with readers.”

King Harvey of Fort Fairfield, a grizzled old editor of great repute, once told me very much the same thing in far more colorful terms. Without asking for anonymity out of fear for his safety.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.