The New York Times has been monitoring its use of anonymous sources this year.
Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, told Times public editor Elizabeth Spayd, who recently succeeded Margaret Sullivan, that:
“In the four months since we laid out the new policies, we’ve seen a measurable drop in the prevalence of anonymous sourcing. (Precise numbers are hard to nail down, but our estimate would be in the range of a 30 percent decrease.)”
iMediaEthics asked Corbett what prompted the assessment. “What Liz posted was a note I sent to the newsroom staff, to update my colleagues on how the new policies were working after four months, and to encourage continuing attention to the issue,” Corbett told iMediaEthics by e-mail.
We also asked how he came up with the 30% figure. Corbett said he and a research colleague conduct “periodic searches” on the Times‘ use of anonymous sources. “Those checks showed a pretty clear drop in the months since we offered the news guidelines,” he said.
The New York Times unveiled new anonymous practices in March, then-public editor Margaret Sullivan reported. As iMediaEthics wrote at the time, the policy requires one of three top editors at the newspaper to “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.”
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The guidelines also dictate that anonymous sources can only provide “information” as opposed to “spin or speculation,” and that the Times attempt to confirm information provided by anonymous sources.
As public editor, Sullivan often criticized the Times for overusing anonymous sources and started a feature called AnonyWatch to draw attention to the problem. Sullivan told iMediaEthics by e-mail the Times’ progress is “heartening.”
Corbett commented to Spayd this week that he also thinks editors are paying more attention to anonymous sourcing and laid out some of the basics of the Times‘ guidelines. Corbett reminded editors that “there should be no exceptions” to the Times‘ guideline that reporters must tell their editors who their anonymous sources are.”
Spayd was named the Times‘ sixth public editor in May, as iMediaEthics previously reported. She succeeded Margaret Sullivan. Spayd’s first Times column was published earlier this month.
UPDATE: 7/21/2016 7:21 PM EST
UPDATE: 7/22/2016 9:48 PM EST With comment from Sullivan