In an effort to cut down on anonymous sources—especially those that lead to incorrect information—the New York Times has tightened its guidelines.
The Times will now require any story that “hinges on a central fact” from an anon source to be approved by one of three top editors.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet, deputy executive editor Matt Purdy, and standards editor Philip Corbett, explained the need for changes in a memo to staffers:
At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism – and it has turned out to be wrong.
You can read the full note from Baquet, Purdy and Corbett below.
To the Newsroom:
The use of anonymous sources is sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.
At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism — and it has turned out to be wrong.
The use of anonymous sources presents the greatest risk in our most consequential, exclusive stories. But the appearance of anonymous sources in routine government and political stories, as well as many other enterprise and feature stories, also tests our credibility with readers. They routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.
After consulting with a number of our most experienced reporters and editors, we have decided to take several steps to raise the bar and provide added scrutiny for our use of anonymous sources. These new guidelines require top editors to approve the use of anonymity. But it is incumbent on everyone producing journalism throughout the newsroom to share the responsibility.
Our basic, longstanding criteria remain unchanged: Anonymity should be, as our stylebook entry says, “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable.” That standard should be taken seriously and applied rigorously. Material from anonymous sources should be “information,” not just spin or speculation. It should be “newsworthy,” not just color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider “reliable” — ideally because we have additional corroboration, or because we know that the source has first-hand, direct knowledge. Our level of skepticism should be high and our questions pointed. Without a named source, readers may see The Times as vouching for the information unequivocally — or, worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.
We recognize that in today’s hypercompetitive news environment, the tighter guidelines below inevitably mean that we will occasionally be beaten on a story. We have no intention of reducing our urgency in getting news to our readers. But we are prepared to pay the price of losing an occasional scoop in order to protect our precious credibility.