Unnamed sources: essential or overused?

A judge holds a journalist in contempt for protecting his sources, stoking ethics debate.

To judge by America's top newspapers, the nation's capital is full of powerful and important people who live in dread of seeing their names in print. You know these folks - they're those mysterious "senior administration officials," "highly placed sources" and "government staffers familiar with the investigation."

Further down the journalistic food chain, smaller newspapers routinely cloak the identities of everyone from the police chief to the guy who thinks the Fourth of July parade was a lot better last year.

But even as reporters rally this week behind a Time Magazine reporter who's fighting to keep his sources private, there's a growing perception that the use of anonymous sources has run amok. Amid journalism scandals and hand-wringing about media credibility, editors across the county are evaluating their policies on the sources. The influential Washington Post and The New York Times issued new guidelines on their use earlier this year; one study found that 40 percent of Times A-section stories in December 2003 featured unnamed sources. "The problem is quite serious," says Louis Hodges, a professor emeritus of journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University in Virginia.

But few, if any, journalists are calling for a complete ban. After all, a still-unnamed source famously guided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through the thicket of Nixonian wrongdoing.

"Sometimes the only way to get a story is to promise confidentiality," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press advocacy group. Ms. Dalglish, a former reporter in Minnesota, remembers relying on anonymous sources to expose the illegal dumping of toxic waste in a pond. "Those folks were never going to come forth and admit to doing what they did if I identified them," she says. "They were afraid they'd be arrested, intimidated or sued. The important thing is that the place got cleaned up."

News organizations and individual reporters value unidentified sources so much that they go to great lengths to protect their identities: In 2001, a Texas freelance writer went to jail for 168 days instead of revealing the names of sources, and this year a weekly reporter in Minnesota paid nearly $17,000 in fines - donated by fellow journalists - because he refused to disclose who gave him anonymous comments about the firing of a high school football coach. Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, meanwhile, faces potential jail time for refusing to testify about the disclosure of an CIA agent's name.

But critics say there's a big divide between whistle-blowers like Watergate's Deep Throat and run-of-the-mill anonymous sources who freely bash political opponents or, conversely, say little more than the obvious, as a "top official" did in 2002 when he or she disclosed to Newsweek that the Bush administration was "spending a lot of time" worrying about Iraq's potential bioterrorism weapons.

Then there's the widely accepted Washington practice of "background" briefings by unnamed high-level officials. Daniel Okrent, the public editor of The New York Times, recently dared his paper and a handful of competitors to stop covering the briefings if officials refuse to be identified. There's no word that anyone took him up on it.

Some, like Mr. Hodges, blame the glut of unnamed sources on simple laziness. "It's the easy way out," he says. Peter Szekely, a Reuters correspondent and newspaper union official in Washington, thinks another factor is at play. "Reporters have a sense that their stories would have more cachet if they've got unidentified sources in them. It gives them an aura of mystery" and suggests they're "plugged in," he says.

But some journalists learn to like restrictions. While working at the Spokane, Wash., daily newspaper in the 1990s, reporter Kelly McBride and colleagues initially bristled at a hardline policy banning even age-old attributions such as "according to observers" and "sources say."

But "ultimately it made me much more accountable as a reporter," says Ms. McBride, who now teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "It forced me to be very transparent with the readers about where I got the information and why I thought it was reliable."

Indeed, unidentified sources aren't exactly accountable when things go wrong. Not long ago, many media outlets revealed the name of a man identified by unnamed officials as the suspect in a series of high-profile murders in California's Yosemite National Park. But a tiny local daily newspaper, whose parent company forbids virtually all unidentified sources, refused to identify the man.

"It was really difficult, since obviously we wanted to remain competitive," said managing editor Patty Fuller of The Union Democrat in Sonora. "Rightfully so, we had reporters who were really questioning whether we were doing the right thing."

In the end, police arrested another man, who confessed to the crimes. The whole saga left the reputation of the initial suspect in tatters - but not that of The Union Democrat.

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