In an effort to shed more light on how we work, The Times is running a series of short posts explaining some of our journalistic practices. Read more of this series here.
Here, our standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, explains why we sometimes allow sources to go unnamed.
The Times sometimes agrees not to identify people who provide information for our articles. Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way.
We realize many readers are skeptical about the credibility and motivation of unnamed sources; some even question whether the sources exist. We have rules and procedures to try to address those concerns.
Besides the reporter, at least one editor must know the identity of the source. Use of anonymous sources in any story must be approved by a high-ranking editor, usually a department head like the International editor or the Washington bureau chief, or their deputies. When the anonymous sourcing is central to the story, it generally must be approved by an even higher-ranking editor like a deputy managing editor.
We understand readers’ wariness, but many important stories in sensitive areas like politics, national security and business could never be reported if we banned anonymous sourcing. Sources often fear for their jobs or business relationships — sometimes even for their safety.
Some readers suggest that sources are more likely to be honest if their names are published, and more likely to lie if granted anonymity. But reporters in many areas know that the opposite can be true. On the record, people in sensitive positions will often simply mouth the official line; they will be candid only if they know their name won’t be used.
Of course, we have to be skeptical. There is a real risk of being spun and manipulated. Reporters and editors ask themselves: How does the source know this information? What’s the motivation for telling us? Has she or he proved reliable in the past? Are there ways to corroborate the information? Often we explain some of this background in the story, while still taking care to protect the source’s identity.
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