The New York Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan reported March 15 that “Times editors are cracking down on the use of anonymous sources,” instituting a new policy “intended to significantly reduce ... an overreliance on unnamed sources.” The Times' announcement follows a July 2015 botched story surrounding Hillary Clinton's use of email which relied on anonymous sources to wrongly claim the former secretary of state was the subject of a criminal investigation.
On July 23, The Times published a report based on unnamed sources that stated "[t]wo inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information on a private email account she used as secretary of state." After numerous revisions, the newspaper subsequently issued two corrections acknowledging that the referral in question was not criminal and did not specifically request an investigation into Clinton herself. Sullivan later penned a column criticizing her paper for running a “sensational” story before it was ready and for not being transparent about revising it. She concluded the paper should have a discussion about its use of anonymous sources.
In Sullivan's March 15 article, she called The Times' new policy “sensible, moderate and necessary,” explaining, “It requires one of three top editors to review and sign off on articles that depend primarily on information from unnamed sources - particularly those that 'hinge on a central fact' from such a source'”:
After two major front-page errors in a six-month period, Times editors are cracking down on the use of anonymous sources.
An email to the newsroom Tuesday morning from Dean Baquet, the executive editor, Matt Purdy, a deputy executive editor, and Philip Corbett, the standards editor, said, in part:
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.
Although the policy does not ban anonymity, it is intended to significantly reduce what Mr. Purdy characterized as an overreliance on unnamed sources.
It requires one of three top editors to review and sign off on articles that depend primarily on information from unnamed sources - particularly those that “hinge on a central fact” from such a source, Mr. Purdy told me last week in an interview. The editors are Mr. Baquet, Mr. Purdy, and Susan Chira, another deputy executive editor.
Here's my take: This is a sensible, moderate and necessary plan. The devil, of course, is in the enforcement. The Times often has not done an effective job of carrying out the policy it already has, one element of which states that anonymous sources may be used only as “a last resort.”