Press Box

USA Today’s Better Mousetrap

A newspaper that actually observes its own anonymice guidelines!

Tomorrow, a panel of notables (and I) will ponder the menace of anonymice gnawing away at the credibility of American journalism at a National Press Club symposium grandiosely titled “Confronting the Seduction of Secrecy: Toward Improved Access to Government Information on the Record.”

Not counting moderator Geneva Overholser, the panel is 15 members strong. That reduces the odds of me contributing my two cents to just about zero, especially considering the fact that audience participation is being encouraged. So, rather than pout—something I’m very good at—permit me to recycle and refresh my wisdom on the topic of anonymice.

Although I’ve repeatedly inveighed against the use of anonymous sources and lectured about how they corrupt newspapers, I’m not a fundamentalist about the issue. Just two weeks ago, I toutedWashington Post reporter Dana Priest’s article about the CIA’s treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, which contained not one named source of any consequence. I’m willing to make sourcing exceptions for some intelligence stories because the secret nature of intelligence agencies makes official confirmation of well-reported pieces nearly impossible.

The Priest Exception, as I will now call it, can be invoked for unnamed sources whenever 1) the reporting is so detailed as to be undeniable; 2) the public’s urgent need for the information trumps the petty objections of anonymice-haters such as me; and 3) the account exposes official wrongdoing. In the immediate example of Priest’s CIA piece, it helps that the agency couldn’t even muster a convincing non-denial of her basic story.

I rail against anonymous sources because they tend to degrade the information content of news stories in which they’re quoted. Most anonymice spin and leak selectively for political, personal, or institutional gain, and all the “balancing quotations” from other sources can never erase their taint. Nowhere is this more evident than in “official background briefings,” where government spokesmen put a flattering gloss on events for the captive press corps. President Bush’s recent European tour produced a bumper crop of such stories, which I ridiculed a couple of weeks back.

The idea that the enthusiastic slaughter of anonymice—especially the swill-serving ones who give official briefings—will somehow bring quality journalism to a standstill is disproved five days a week by USA Today, which operates under some of the toughest anonymous-source guidelinesin the business. (See below  for the paper’s guidelines.)

The newspaper doesn’t ban unnamed sources from its pages, but it does require the rigorous scrutiny of top editors whenever reporters include them in stories. The managing editor must know the identity of the source. He must believe the information provided by the source and have faith that it is authoritative and first-hand. Only rarely does an anonymous source clear those high bars at USA Today.

Would USA Today have published Priest’s story? Editor Kenneth A. Paulson says via e-mail that the paper’s “guidelines would have required that the reporter identify the sources to a managing editor and provide some background as to why these sources were trustworthy and in a position to know. With those requirements met, we would have published a story along the lines of the Dana Priest piece.”

A lot of newspapers preach an anti-anonymice gospel in their internal handbooks, but few practice it as assiduously as does McPaper. When I audited the coverage of Bush’s European trip by the nation’s top dailies—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal—I found that only USA Today and the Journal avoided publishing the blind and inane quotations of “senior administration officials.” They served their readers with what they did print and what they didn’t.

A new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that anonymous sourcing is down at the largest newspapers, which is good news. What’s more telling from my point of view, however, is how rare anonymous sourcing is at small and mid-range newspapers compared to the big dailies. According to the study, 12 percent of all surveyed coverage in the large papers contained anonymous sources, compared to 3 percent at the smallest and 6 percent at the mid-range papers.

I suspect that supply and demand accounts for the overindulgence of anonymous sourcing by larger papers. Many of the stories covered by big papers are covered by a horde, which plays to a source’s advantage. If the New York Times reporter won’t abide by the source’s wishes, the source can shop his “information” on his terms to a more pliant outlet. In theory, journalists covering a beat in Smalltown, USA have greater leverage over official sources and therefore succeed in getting them on the record more often because they may number only two or three.

The economics of the reporter-source relationship suggest that sources will dictate the terms of engagement whenever the press gaggle exceeds a certain size, and that campaigning against rampant anonymous sourcing is a fool’s errand. Yet given the lip service that the industry’s leaders—the New York Times and the Washington Post—have paid in recent months about keeping the anonymice population down, we fools could win by merely reminding the top editors of their promises.

Meanwhil e, enjoy the anonymice guidelines from the newspaper that knows how to uphold them.

USA Today’s Guidelines for Using Unnamed SourcesThe use of unnamed sources erodes our credibility and should be avoided. When there is no other way to obtain information that is crucial to the reader’s understanding of the story, these guidelines apply:  1. The identity of an unnamed source must be shared with and approved by a managing editor prior to publication. The managing editor must be confident that the information presented to the reader is accurate, not just that someone said it. This usually will require confirmation from a second source or from documents. When a single confidential source is cited without further support in the story, the editor must be confident that information presented is based on first-hand knowledge and is authoritative.2. The same principles apply to the use of confidential documents. It is not enough to know and sign off on the identity of the source of the documents. The managing editor must be satisfied that the documents are authentic and trustworthy and the chain of custody of the documents can be traced to their originators. 3. Anonymous sources must be cited only as a last resort. This applies not just to direct quotes but to the use of anonymous sources generally. Before accepting their use for publication, an editor must be confident that there is no better way to present the information and that the information is important enough to justify the broader cost in reader trust. This is not to be taken lightly.4. Anonymous sources may only be used to report facts. Anonymous accusations and speculation are not acceptable. 5. Sources should understand that if information is attributed to them anonymously in the newspaper, an editor will know their identity. They should also understand they may be identified if their information proves to be false or unfounded.6. Reporters may not enter into agreements with sources that specify when information will be used in USA TODAY or under what circumstances without the direct participation of a managing editor. This includes committing to a specific publication date, location in the newspaper or any other understanding that limits USA TODAY’S independent news judgment. 7. Extreme care should be taken not to identify unnamed sources in a way that exposes their identity. But unnamed sources should be described as precisely as possible. Additionally, reporters and editors should add any information that establishes the credibility of a source on the subject matter in question and they should identify any bias the source may have.8.  The number of sources or their standing must never be exaggerated.9. Sources should be pushed to accept the lowest possible level of confidentiality. The agreed-upon level of confidentiality should be understood by both parties. 10. Sources cited in wire reports or by other media should be used only when absolutely necessary. When using sources from another media, they should be attributed to the appropriate organization, citing its description of the source.


Any anonymice you’d like to out? Send e-mail to The Washington Post, which was mentioned favorably in this article, is owned by the same slightly threadbare media conglomerate that owns Slate. I’ll do my best to make sure that that doesn’t happen again. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)