Anonymous sources

In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, the New York Times tightened its policy on using unnamed sources. Did it make a difference? According to a study by students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the answer is yes. The results, reported by public editor Clark Hoyt, show that only about half as many articles rely on anonymous sources now compared to four years ago, before the policy was introduced. And unnamed sources are much less likely to appear on the front page. But there is still room for improvement:

Most anonymous sources — nearly 80 percent — were still not adequately described to readers. How did they know their information? Why did they need anonymity? But that was still better than before the policy, when nearly 90 percent were inadequately described. The use of anonymous sources to air opinion, not fact, increased after 2004, even though the policy would seem to discourage that.

In a memo to the Times staff last week, executive editor Bill Keller said the is a useful reminder that anonymous sources “are not to be used lightly.” But he said it is “high-minded foolishness” to suggest that they can’t be used at all.

The ability to offer protection to a source is an essential of our craft,” he said. “We cannot bring readers the information they want and need to know without sometimes protecting sources who risk reprisals, firing, legal action or, in some parts of the world, their lives when they confide in us.”

The bottom line at the Times is that unnamed sources should be used only as a “last resort,” and only if an editor knows the identity of the source. Says managing editor Jill Abramson: “Our main concern is not whether a source is wholesome or unwholesome, but whether he/she is credible and whether the information from the source is important to getting the full story.” Abramson is taking questions on the policy this week at askthetimes@nytimes.com.

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