The editor of a Massachusetts community newspaper, the Gloucester Times, explained to readers in a Dec. 17 column why the newspaper used anonymous sources in two of its stories the previous week.
The Gloucester Times is a daily community newspaper with a circulation of about 8,000 copies, according to Mondo Times.
The editor, Ray Lamont, noted that using anonymous sources is one of the “dicier” editorial decisions because of credibility questions, but in the two cases, Lamont argued the stories were newsworthy and the anonymity was unavoidable if the newspaper were to report on the issues in question.
Lamont added that although anonymously-provided information “should be last resorts,” it can be justified.
In this Dec. 14 story, the Gloucester Times reported on an investigation into whether a public official “wrongly deleted documents.” The investigation is “behind closed doors,” so for the newspaper to report on it, it had to use anonymous sources. The newspaper then used that information to get further on-the-record comment, according to Lamont. Lamont argued that the investigation is in the public interest, and “we knew the information was rock solid,” so the Gloucester Times agreed to grant anonymity.
In that story, the Gloucester Times cited “a town official close to the probe” as providing information about the allegedly deleted documents and the investigation.
The second story, this Dec. 17 story, reported on “the apparent suicide of Frederick Lyman, the former city man who was out on bail after being indicted in a case of alleged child molestation.” In that case, the Gloucester Times attributed the news of the suicide to “sources close to the case.”
We wrote to Lamont asking more about the newspaper’s anonymous source policy and how often he’d estimate the newspaper uses anonymous sources, as his column suggests it isn’t a common occurence. Lamont explained that reporters have gotten clearance from either him or another editor at the newspaper before using anonymously sourced information or quotes in every case he can recall. “At that point, we talk about it — and about what it does to the story if we DON’T use it. Then we try to verify the info otherwise — and if we’re getting nowhere, we’ll talk about it again,” he noted. Lamont told us by e-mail that the identity of anonymous sources is typically known by the reporter, he and occasionally another editor. “I also try to at least verify with 2 other sources (3 altogether) at least on background,” he noted.
He told us “In general, I would say we only use quotes of information based on anonymous sources about once a month — we can go a few months and not have any, than we can have weeks like this past one where we would use two in a week. Obviously, it depends on the information, its importance to the story, and the need for delivering that aspect of the story to readers.”
Lamont explained that his preference is to report on-the-record information, but that he understands sometimes the story can’t be reported without using anonymous information or sources in certain cases.
We asked Lamont if the “Why Did My Newspaper Do That?” is a common column topic. He told us it is “a regular Saturday morning feature” he has written since he started working for the Gloucester Times in January 2008. “I actually started writing when editor of the Westerly RI Sun (2000-2008), and then brought it here,” he explained in an e-mail to iMediaEthics, noting that a former Meriden [Conn.] Record-Journal editor, Jim Smith, occasionally would write a similarly-themed column on editorial decisions.
Topics of recent columns have included anonymous commenting, changes to the print edition, and reporting on crime victims, according to Lamont. “I’d like to think it lets readers know — at least a little bit — about what really does go into the coverage they see every day — and in turn, lets them know that they’re a part of it.” he wrote to iMediaEthics.