Should reporters protect the people they cover?

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The topic of anonymous sources — concealing the identity of a source at his or her request in order to gain valuable information — is an old chestnut in ombudsman circles; it’s a subject we come back to time and time again because it’s just so fascinating. The idea conjures images of “Deep Throat” in “All the President’s Men,” the book that lured so many of us to journalism school and shaped an entire generation’s thinking about both the government and the media. To use the lexicon of the season, it’s the topic that keeps on giving.

The most common ruling from today’s newsroom leaders about using anonymous sources is simple: Don’t. A recent Associated Press survey found that one-quarter of newspaper editors who responded say they “never allow reporters to quote anonymous sources; 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.”

Still, the use remains popular. Clark Hoyt, the New York Times’ public editor, wrote in March that the Times had employed some anonymous sources 241 times since January. Hoyt wasn’t bragging; the New York Times strives to limit hiding sources’ identities, but clearly is struggling.

The Cape Cod Times is among those papers that strictly limits how and when such sources are used. A search of the paper’s 2009 archives shows only one anonymous source, mentioned briefly in a Nov. 14 story about the recovery of missing police guns in Falmouth.

Times reporter K.C. Myers recently raised an interesting question about anonymous sources: Under what circumstances, if any, should a reporter choose to conceal the identity of a source, even if that source has spoken “on the record”?

Myers asked the question after writing about a shooting in Hyannis. Her source spoke on the record about the neighborhood where the shooting took place and, after the story was published, expressed concern about her name being in the paper.

“We talked at length, and I asked her name, wrote it down, checked the spelling, and then we talked some more,” Myers said. “She even told me that she didn’t want to be intimidated and didn’t want to back down by refusing to talk… . She spoke out intelligently and bravely, and added a lot of color to this story.”

Those details included this passage: “The older children can easily watch drug deals go down while playing basketball… . I don’t want all the good people to be scared away, then it will become a total slum,” she said. “But I cannot take my 3-year-old to the cemetery (on Sea Street) anymore, because I find spoons with the burns on the bottom and the needles.”

It should be noted that this source spoke generally about drug use in the neighborhood and not specifically about the shooting. The information she provided to Myers mirrored police reports, but was important to the story because it came from a civilian rather than from law enforcement.

Reporters rarely, if ever, choose to protect the identity of adult sources. Anonymity comes only after a negotiation between the source and the reporter, and then another layer of negotiation in the newsroom between reporters and editors.

According to Editor Paul Pronovost, the Cape Cod Times and many other 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. Reporters and editors anguish over these decisions because the stakes are so high.

Each story and source is considered on its own merits, Pronovost said, and there must be a “clear and present” danger to a source in order to warrant protecting his or her identity. “Our responsibility is not only to protect sources but to readers to let them know who our sources are,” he explained. “The credibility of the paper and the information is at stake.”

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