The Slatest

The New York Times Takes On MH370 Anonymous Sourcing

Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue personnel check a map during the search in the Andaman sea for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014.


The New York Times is outing itself. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, launched a new series on her blog today to track instances of Times articles referencing anonymous sources. She’s calling the effort “AnonyWatch” (alternative name suggestions welcome).

Today’s installment, which comes as anonymous sourcing runs rampant across the media in its quest for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 answers, highlights a couple examples from the Gray Lady. Here’s one in which an unnamed pilot hypothesizes about unconfirmed information on MH370’s flight path:

In a news story about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, there’s this anonymous quotation, commenting on a suggestion (also anonymously sourced) that someone may have piloted the aircraft to as high as 45,000 feet, above the 43,100-foot ceiling for the Boeing 777. The passage reads:

“A current Boeing 777-200 pilot for an Asian-based airline said the move could have been intended to depressurize the cabin and render the passengers and crew unconscious, preventing them from alerting people on the ground with their cellphones. ‘Incapacitate them so as to carry on your plan uninterrupted,’ the pilot said.”

Sullivan writes that she asked the paper’s managing editor, Dean Baquet, for his view on the article. Baquet called it a “mistake to let an anonymous source speculate in this way.” Only when there is no other way for a reporter to include crucial information, Sullivan concludes, is the practice acceptable. So, she says, “it seems that some firm reminders to editors are in order.”

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.