Washington Post's Anonymous Sources Criticized by Reader

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The Washington Post was criticized for its use of anonymous sources.

Reader John Burpo of Springfield, Va. criticized the Washington Post’s anonymous sources reliance in its Feb. 1 story on health care.

In a letter published by the Post, Burpo called the Post out for not explaining why the sources were granted anonymity and also for allowing the anonymous sources to be quoted giving “unsubstantiated criticism.”

“The Feb. 1 front-page story concerning a Florida judge’s ruling on the health-care law [‘U.S. judge in Florida rejects health law’] contained ‘background’ quotes offered by ‘two senior officials, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity.’

“These two unidentified officials offered unsubstantiated criticism of the judge’s ruling. The Post offered no justification for granting these officials anonymity and no information on their legal skills and expertise relative to that of the judge.

“For The Post to be complicit in the anonymous trashing of a judge violates its own standards.”

The story, by N.C. Aizenman and Amy Goldstein, cited as sources U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson’s decision, “conservative lawyer in Washington” David Rivkin, Justice Department spokesperson Tracy Schmaler, Stanford Law School faculty member David Engstrom, and the anonymous sources.  (See the story here.)

The anonymous sources are described as “two senior officials, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity.”

According to the Post, the sources “disparaged the judge’s ruling, repeatedly calling it an ‘outlier.’ One of the officials said, ‘The analysis on the whole is, to put it charitably, very unconventional’.”

The Washington Post’s public editor, Andrew Alexander, who wrote his last ombudsman column last month, explained in his columns that the Post’s “Standards and Ethics” policies and style guide aren’t available to the public.  However, according to Alexander, Washington Post guidelines call on staffers to detail “as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence.”

In a June 2010 column, Alexander criticized the Post’s writers for granting anonymity “at the drop of a hat.”

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics advises journalists “identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability” and “always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”

iMediaEthics has written to The Washington Post’s Aizenman and Goldstein for comment and will update with any response.

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Washington Post’s Anonymous Sources Criticized by Reader

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