February 29, 2004

Anonymous Sources vs. Anonymous Commenters: How they are similar and why they should be rare

Anonymous speech is a critical part of online and offline communication. All you need think about is Watergate, and Deep Throat, an anonymous source known only to

that brought down Richard Nixon. There are numerous reasons why journalists must keep the identity of a source of important information secret, and there are many reasons why I want to allow anonymous comments on my blog to be made. But at the same time, overuse, to hide, to harass, to advance ideas manipulatively, without scrutiny of the purveyor of those ideas and their motivations, is corrosive to the marketplace of ideas, our discussions across communities and for the democracy. The gold standard for objectivity in media is under scrutiny, and as Ken Auletta recently said, it may not be objectivity that is key, but fairness. And this fairness goes both ways, with the reporting, but also for readers who, in evaluating a story should know who said what and where they come from. This is a kind of fairness too. After all, there is no view from nowhere; each person's words should be scrutinized in the context of their views. Big media has huge power and huge responsibility to use these sources rarely and only in very important circumstances. Otherwise, they become shill's for these manipulators who keep insisting they need anonymity, and lose the credibility that is their professional currency.

On February 25, the newsroom at the NYTimes got a memo from Bill Keller about Confidential Sources. It is not as broad as the policy they put online on the same day and mentioned today by Dan Okrent (in what could be a blog, as it's online, with links, and is written in semi-blog style -- a new blend for the Times of online and offline communication, though not with comments, they leave that to their forums).

The Keller memo on the new policy does say that 16 news organizations including NYT, "The Washington Post (scroll down for the WDCPost memo), The AP, and The Chicago Tribune, as well as the president and four other board member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors" signed this policy, which says that writers and editors should "resist granting sources anonymity except as a last resort", and then if done, the reason will be stated in the story, and "a supervising editor must know the source's identity." The policy admits that "in some cases, it may be impossible to use the information they [confidential sources] provide" but the "costs of following a rigorous sourcing policy will be far outweighed by the trust it builds with our readership."

The NYTimes has had trouble with this before, and so it's interesting that they have made this policy, because they've gone back and forth on anonymous sources. Gretchen Morgenson in her work about Wall Street and Enron had Howell Raines refusing to run pieces because she wouldn't disclose sources, though she eventually won a Pulitzer for that work. But then Raines allowed Jayson Blair to run amuck with anonymous sources. And now they are back to emphasizing a policy of requiring disclosure to editors.

The other day, Dan Gillmor wrote his column about issues of credibility with online anonymous speech and why communication on the internet is degraded when people try to fool readers about who is speaking, where they come from, or refuse to stand behind their words. It's something that came up on bIPlog, where a commenter used different false names there, on Dan's blog, and at some other blogs, to imply that different people were speaking, when in fact none of the names were real and they were all one person. Dan and I have been talking about this issue since last Fall, off and on, trying to figure out ways to keep speech open, but still foster support for accountable speech. Amy Harmon's article about Amazon's glitch revealed more on the topic of online communication and the manipulation of readers perceptions. Amazon temporarily revealed the real identities of book reviewers, where sometimes authors had written their own or good friend's reviews. This has caused people to see those reviews as untrustworthy.

It seems as though both online anonymous communicators as well as anonymous sources should be highlighted in some way so that readers know the source is anonymous and unverified. Readers do want to view information originating from someone over time to evaluate that person and this should be supported so that people are encouraged to stand behind their words, though I am well aware that if something like this occured, people would attempt to game the system. However, in circumstances like Amazon's system, where they control the review process with a one day delay before putting up a review, they could also require that people with verified accounts post under their real name. There would still be ways to game things somewhat but it would cut down considerably on their book review problem. Open internet communication is another story, and at this point really impossible and undesirable to force people to communicate a certain way, including using a real name. But certainly, writers of blogs could devise someway to highlight anonymous communication that at least might make anonymous words more explicit.

At the request of a professor at UCB (who is a NYTimes reporter), I compared AP and NYTimes articles, before and after the announced policy on Feb 25th. Below is what I came up with, however, since the publicly available policy is effective March 1 at the NYTimes, we will need to evaluate again after the change to see the effects.

Search: anonymous or anonymity (removed any cites that were not about anon sources but that used these words)
Date range pre-policy: Feb 14 to Feb 25, 2004
NYTimes.com results: 995 articles
AP results from WDC Post with AP only selected: 540 (many of these are reposted articles, with either no alterations or altered slightly, so the same articles show up numerous times, and I'm not sure how to count them and don't have the time to really get it right, so I won't try to characterize what the real number is, but I'd guess at maybe 200?)

Date range post policy: Feb 26 and 27
NYTimes.com results: 9
AP results: 15 (counted each article once, regardless of changes)

Note: the AP search was done on the WashingtonPost.com site, where AP can be isolated in the advanced search function.

Examples from the NYTimes (The new NYT policy on sources, which is very cool in terms of transparency and commitment to using anonymous sources judiciously says, "The rules are effective on March 1, 2004, and will become part of a revised Integrity Statement to be issued in the coming months."):

Bank Works to Improve Its Image in Canada By BERNARD SIMON Published: February 27, 2004

Why is this person anonymous? This is a compliment. Surely someone could compliment David Kassie on the record.

Oscar Mudslinging: It's So-o-o Last Year, By SHARON WAXMAN February 27, 2004

Again, why is this person anonymous?

Meeting Local Needs in a Presidential Primary, By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ Published: February 27, 2004

And this person? This isn't exactly a, "crucial issue of law or national security in which sources face dire consequences if exposed...."

Official Says DNA and Alibis Clear Man Held in Sex Attacks By ROBERT D. McFADDEN February 27, 2004

This case I can understand a little more, where the court hasn't yet issued the dismissal of the case, but it would seem that someone who attended the hearings could substantiate that the evidence was presented and seemed credible, and therefore, because of the alibis, would be cleared.

AP (not subject to the above referenced NYT policies, but a signer of the agreement to use anonymous sources more judiciously, however I haven't been able to find anything on their site about this other than here last updated in 1995: News sources should be disclosed unless there is a clear reason not to do so. When it is necessary to protect the confidentiality of a source, the reason should be explained.):

Study: 4,392 Priests Accused of Sex Abuse By RACHEL ZOLL The Associated Press Friday, February 27, 2004; 7:28 AM

The Catholic Church has a history of hiding and these studies are supposed to make the sexual abuse situation more transparent, and the reporter is using anonymous sources to corroborate this.

Supermarkets, Grocery Clerks Reach Deal By ALEX VEIGA The Associated Press Friday, February 27, 2004; 4:06 AM

Does the supermarket chain have a spokesperson? Why does this person need to be anonymous? There should be some reason why they was necessary.

Bush Spends $3.6M to Run Ads on Cable TV By LIZ SIDOTI The Associated Press February 26, 2004

Okay, we know that team Bush-Cheney is not kind to leakers, but was this an intentional plant of information? A reason about why this is necessary would be good.

Media Wants Names of Martha Stewart Jurors By ERIN McCLAM The Associated Press Thursday, February 26, 2004; 7:45 PM

I can understand why this is anonymous, because otherwise we wouldn't likely get the information at all, but where is the explanation that this information is not really supposed to be public in the first place, until the Judge makes it public, and that's why the source is anonymous?

Overall, these uses of anonymous sources were not explained, and seem unnecessary, except in two cases.

Posted by Mary Hodder at February 29, 2004 01:09 PM | TrackBack

We all have potential or real conflicts of interest, NDAs, confidentiality agreements... don't these seem to be legitimate grounds for anonymity? I agree that it should be minimized; decisions are made more effectively with full citation.

Posted by: joe at February 29, 2004 09:56 PM

Conflicts of interest should be made available to people reading stories who need to know about they conflict as the evaluate a quoted person's words. NDA and confidentiality agreements, if they conflict with what is being disclosed, are a different matter. If the information being revealed is of high importance (say, a Diebold consultant were to reveal some election-damaging activity that was taken the night before an election) and the person's identity needed to be protected, then a story should explain the reason, and put the information up because it is critical to get it out into the ideas marketplace for consideration. If a person under NDA is just revealing confidential info that is not critical to national security or where the person is in some danger or whatever, then the reporter needs to ask why, and investigate, think about what is going on and decide if they want to give this person a mouthpiece in the media.

The point is, even this past week, anonymous sources were cited when it seems unnecessary to do so, and then when they were cited, no reason was given for it in the story.

Posted by: mary hodder at March 1, 2004 07:08 AM

In the 300-plus page book I'm writing, I think I'm using just one anonymous source, and that one only because what he's doing is illegal. But a daily newspaper has other considerations, and may not have the time or luxury of finding someone else (if he or she exists) to speak on the record about a particular subject.

To be sure, it's a bad habit, and deserves to die out, except for important government information and a few other exceptions. Reporters do need to needle more officials to go on the record, but I've never met a reporter who didn't wince (at least a little) when someone asks to go on background.

Posted by: JD Lasica at March 1, 2004 11:42 PM