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Good Reporters Don't Buy Into Source Bias -- On or Off the Record

A Few Thoughts About 'The New York Times' New Policies

By Published on .

The New York Times Co. says it will reduce the width of its flagship newspaper by one-and-a-half inches, resulting in a 5% decrease in its news space.
Recently instituted 'New York Times' policies require reporters to include cumbersome explanations of about anonymous sources' positions and motivations. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Recently instituted 'New York Times' policies require reporters to include cumbersome explanations of about anonymous sources' positions and motivations. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

I have an idea how to get back some of that space: Do away with those tortured explanations of anonymous sources.

Cumbersome reading
Since June of last year, the Times has required reporters to explain why a source was given (or "granted" as the paper often said) anonymity, the authoritativeness of the source and why the paper decided to use the information. It has made for some very cumbersome reading.

This policy even applied to sports. So when the New York Knicks, say, were about to fire Coach Larry Brown, a Times story would state that Brown was going to be let go, according to a Knicks executive who was not authorized to divulge such information.

What drove a lot of Times readers crazy was the paper's habit of saying that it had "granted" anonymity to sources. As one irate reader said in an e-mail to the newspaper's public editor, Byron Calame, "granted" sounds like "dispensation from the Pope."

Mr. Calame said in his July 30 column that Times editors have modified their policy by allowing reporters to forgo giving explicit reasons for giving anonymity to sources.

'Some ways of evaluating'
But it's still rather convoluted. "My interpretation of that policy is that as long as we somehow explain what the authoritativeness of the source is, why the source couldn't or didn't speak for attribution, and either explicitly or implicitly why we decided to use the information, we're giving readers at least some ways of evaluating the information for themselves," Craig Whitney, assistant managing editor and the Times standards editor, said in an e-mail to Mr. Calame.

The Times' assumption is that "some realities of anonymous-sourcing negotiations deserve to be noted, even if some people think they're obvious," Mr. Calame noted.

So while it's now OK for reporters to say their source was "speaking on the condition of anonymity," as an explanation of why the paper can't quote a source by name, reporters still must take up space telling readers (1) how well-positioned the source is to know what he's talking about and (2) why the source is talking to the paper.

Our policies
My feeling is that readers have more of a capacity to figure it out than the Times gives them credit for. The most important thing is giving readers an indication of what bias sources might have. We go by these rules: It's never acceptable to allow an anonymous source to disparage anyone or any company specifically. And reporters should try, whenever possible, to indicate the person's general job description and their relationship to the news event.

So in last week's issue we handled an anonymous quote on cereal-price increases this way: "'I know General Mills will follow, they've been licking their chops to take pricing but would never make a move before Kellogg,' said one East Coast retail executive."

It's obvious to our readers that the retail executive didn't want to be quoted because he does business with both companies. Do we need to explain that? I don't think so.

Spin control and grinding axes
Greg David, editor at Crain's New York Business, notes that all sources come to reporters with a some kind of bias. "When a company CEO grants an interview, he or she has an ax to grind [or spin the news in the most favorable way] just as much as a rival [on a not-for-attribution basis] has an ax to grind by disputing it."

So anonymous sources are not the major problem. Allowing bias to creep into stories is the main threat, and that can happen whether sources are on the record or unattributed.
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