Survey- Papers limit confidential sources in stories

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Editors at about one in four newspapers who responded to a survey say they never allow reporters to quote anonymous sources, and most others have policies designed to limit the practice. One editor said his paper's rules are so strict they would have disqualified Deep Throat as a source.

The Associated Press and the Associated Press Managing Editors association decided to jointly survey American newspapers to find out what their practices are. The project, believed to be the most comprehensive of its kind conducted in recent years, drew replies from 419 publications -- about 28 percent of the nation's 1,450 daily newspapers.

Editors at 103 papers, nearly all of them in small and mid-size markets, said they do not ever permit reporters to cite anonymous sources in their articles.

"Our policy is to get people on the record. Period," said Eileen Lehnert, editor of the Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot. "Once you operate from that standpoint, you rarely have to reconsider your position."

Newspapers that do allow use of unnamed sources include those based in large cities and operating bureaus overseas or in Washington, where requests by sources for anonymity occur often. Most of these papers say they have formal policies intended to minimize the reliance on anonymity.

"The use of unnamed sources is limited to the most compelling cases where an important story can be told no other way," said David Boardman, managing editor of The Seattle Times.

Carl Lavin, deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said that his paper discourages the use of unnamed sources, but "this needs to be balanced with the need to present vital information to the reader that cannot be obtained by other means."

Ken Stickney, managing editor at The News-Star in Monroe, La., said he bars his own reporters from using unnamed sources, but will carry news service stories with such sources "because sometimes you can't get anything out of Washington without them."

Phil Lucas, executive editor of The News Herald of Panama City, Fla., said his paper has quoted anonymous sources only about once every three years, under restrictions so tight that "we would not use a source such as Deep Throat," who turned out to be former FBI official Mark Felt.

"We do it only if the information is compelling. ... and if we understand and can justify exactly what ax the source is grinding," Lucas said. "The internal politics of the agency he (Felt) worked for, what his motivation might be -- that would be an issue for us."

Many other editors say they have similarly narrow limits on anonymity, allowing it only when someone could lose his job out of retribution, or to protect the identity of a rape victim, illegal immigrant or someone suffering from addiction.

The AP's own policy permits use of anonymous sources only when the material is information -- not opinion -- vital to the news report; when that information is available only under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source; and when the source is reliable and in a position to have accurate information.

The survey arose from a long-term APME project examining issues of newspaper credibility, and its timing dovetailed with the heightened debate over anonymous sources.

In the most publicized recent case, Newsweek magazine came under criticism from the White House and retracted a story regarding alleged desecration of the Quran by U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. The story was based on information provided by an anonymous source who later told the magazine he could not be certain he had read about the alleged Quran incident in the government report Newsweek cited.

Geneva Overholser, a professor based at the Washington bureau of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, welcomed what she described as a "dramatic tightening" of anonymity policies.

"Of course I worry whether stories will be lost," she said. "With this very important tool of journalism at risk, we have to protect it by being more disciplined and cautious about when we use it."

Many papers require information from one anonymous source to be corroborated by at least one additional source. Many require that at least one senior editor be told the source's name and, in some cases, require an editor to speak with the source.

"The executive editor or editor must know the names of the sources," said Tonnya Kennedy, managing editor of The State in Columbia, S.C. "We try to print enough information about the sources that signals to the reader, 'This person is real,' without giving away their identity."

Several editors said they would consider allowing anonymous sourcing under exceptional circumstances but in practice have done so rarely or never.

"Over the last 10 years we have not used a single anonymous source," said Ana Walker, editor of the Longview (Texas) News-Journal. "We might as well be writing fiction if we cannot give our readers a source."

Several editors said they are considering applying their papers' tough policies not only to staff-written stories but also to stories obtained from wire and syndication services.

"Our policies for locally written stories. ... are stringent," said Elaine Kulhanek, executive editor of the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune. "We are getting more demanding of wire stories and are less likely to use material with unnamed sources, although decisions are made on a case-by-case basis."

Asked whether they share details of their policies with their readers, 164 editors said yes. This is done through editor's notes, columns and other means, they said.

Editors at 35 papers said they are currently considering toughening their sourcing policies. Rick Hall, managing editor of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, said he is part way through drafting a new policy; Louise Seals, managing editor of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, said a crackdown is under way on "casual and lazy uses of unidentified speakers in features, columns and other subject areas."

APME is an association of editors at AP's member newspapers in the United States and publications affiliated with the Canadian Press in Canada.

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