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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How to deal with anonymous sources?

The problem of anonymous sources has been debated strongly recently. Judith Miller was just released from jail after agreeing to testify in a grand jury investigation (see previous posting). And Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc, announced that he is going to write a book about the use and misuses of anonymous sources, reports New York Times.

The question is whether newspaper should use anonymous sources or not. Some argue that it is better to avoid anonymous sources altogether. Paul D’Ambrosio, investigations editor at the Asbury Park Press in Neptune, New Jersey said that while anonymous sources can help in the reporting process “the final product has to be anonymous source-free in order to maintain trust with the reader."

In the same article in Presstime, a publication by the Newspaper Association of America, Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, gives advice how to get sources on the record. McBride recommends for example that journalists, when asked for anonymity, should say no and see how the source reacts. They should ask for an explanation why the source does not want to reveal its identity and why he or she wants to tell the off-the-record information to the paper. Her advice goes on, "Reporters should then tell the source they can't grant anonymity until checking with an editor, and ask the source to describe the nature of the information, she says. Also, explain clearly what the terms 'off the record' and 'on background' mean, as people often have different understandings. If the reporter decides to grant anonymity, tell the source that his or her identity will be shared with at least one other person in the newsroom. It's a policy that all papers should have."

After that the journalist should check the story again "piece by piece" with the source. If the story is finally run, the journalist should tell the anonymous source that "if the paper is subpoenaed in connection with the story, and the judge denies the paper's motion to quash it, the source should agree to publicly identify himself." If the source does not agree to that the paper has to think about the legal risk in comparison to the worth of the information for the public.

Michael Sallah, investigation editor at the Miami Herald, said that journalists should also try to ask the source if he or she might know somebody who could tell about the same subject and would go on the record.

Sources: Presstime, New York Times

Posted by Anna-Maria Mende on October 5, 2005 at 01:09 PM in o. Ethics and Press Freedom | Permalink

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