The New York Times has tightened its anonymous source policy, public editor Margaret Sullivan reported yesterday. “This is about protecting our integrity with our readers, which is the greatest asset we have,” Times deputy executive editor Matt Purdy told Sullivan.
The new policy mandates that at executive editor Dean Baquet, Purdy or deputy executive editor Susan Chira must “review and sign off on articles that depend primarily on information from unnamed sources — particularly those that ‘hinge on a central fact’ from such a source.” Purdy characterized those stories as “journalistic I.E.D.s,” Sullivan said.
“Our new policy requires approval by one of three masthead editors before publication of any story that substantially relies on anonymous sources,” Purdy told iMediaEthics. “Other approval is required for use of anonymous sources and quotes in any story. And, yes, we will be checking to monitor our progress.”
“Material from anonymous sources should be ‘information,’ not just spin or speculation,” the guidelines state. “It should be ‘newsworthy,’ not color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider ‘reliable’ – ideally because we have additional corroboration, or because we know that the source has first-hand, direct knowledge.”
In addition to having top editor approval over stories based on anonymous sources, the Times will require desk heads OK the use of anonymous sources in other stories. Further, the Times wants to avoid using anonymous quotes when it can.
Sullivan noted that the Times has started following the policy “informally over the past few weeks” with Purdy vetoing a story with “many anonymous quotations” until reporters got sources on the record.
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Sullivan called the new policy “a sensible, moderate and necessary plan” but warned “the devil, of course, is in the enforcement.”
One way the Times can help enforce is by giving editors the power to stop stories. Purdy told Sullivan that “Slot editors, copy editors and producers should not publish a story with any anonymous sourcing that does not have a note indicating that the department head or deputy has approved the sourcing.”
“The Times often has not done an effective job of carrying out the policy it already has, one element of which states that anonymous sources may be used only as ‘a last resort,'” Sullivan said.
Sullivan called for “systemic change” in December after the Times wrongly reported based on an anonymous source that Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino shooters, had posted openly on social media about jihad.
In 2014 Sullivan started “Anonywatch,” a feature to track the misuse of anonymous sources in the newspaper, as iMediaEthics wrote at the time.