Tuesday, December 2, 2008

News & Observer bans anonymous comments -- updated: reader identifies N&O actual policy on anonymous sources

Anonymous comments are banned at the News & Observer.
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Presumably reporters are still allowed to use anonymous sources without disclosing the biases/agendas of the anonymous sources, though. Hat tip: Romenesko

UPDATED: Gearino thinks the N&O's new plan is a way to save themselves some work
The paper already deletes offensive comments, and will continue to do so. It will also continue to monitor its blogs in order to keep things on a civil level. The only difference is that the N&O wants to spend less time doing so, and has chosen a Big Brother tactic to get you to rein yourself in.

In short, this new edict isn’t rooted in a high-minded concern for “the sensibilities of decent people.” The N&O’s managers simply hope that a vaguely intimidating taking of names will save them some work.

Update #2: In comments, John in Carolina may have identified the N&O's actual policy on anonymous sources:
A journalist friend of mine says the easy and honest way for the N&O to explain its policy on anonymous sources is just to say: "We never use anonymous sources except when we want to."

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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

You presume incorrectly. The N&O has a very strict policy on anonymous sources, far stricter than most news organizations.

Don't be so lazy. You could avoid falling into such traps with a phone call, or even a Google search, which would have turned up this:

'Anonymice' menace papers' credibility

Ted Vaden, Staff Writer

Rare is the week that this public editor doesn't receive a complaint that The News & Observer has ignored an important news story.

Last week, it was from reader J.E. Williams of Carrboro, who wanted to know why the paper hadn't run a story about Syrian officers helping insurgents in Iraq. "I hope it was not omitted in order to make room for the story on 'British battle used gum,'" Williams said.

Nope -- although the Feb. 23 gum story was pretty juicy. Problem was that the allegations in the Syria story were unconfirmed, according to the AP report. The editors ran into the same problem last week on a story about Osama bin Laden urging terrorist Abu Musa al-Zarqawi to attack the United States. The Washington Post story was based entirely on anonymous sources, and N&O policy limits use of unnamed sources.

Every night, N&O editors toss out such unsubstantiated stories, newsworthy as they might be, because of the policy against unnamed sources. Thus, when The Post reported in January that the Bush administration had finally given up on finding weapons of mass destruction, The N&O didn't have the story the next day, even though other papers did.

Inevitably, the paper gets grief from readers who see or hear the stories elsewhere and not in The N&O. Often, they assume the omission is deliberate, to suppress news that doesn't conform to the paper's "liberal agenda" (In the case of the weapons story, liberal readers perceived a conservative agenda!).

The N&O's anonymous source policy says, "Avoid them in almost every case, whether light feature pieces or hard-hitting investigative article." In the rare case that a sourced story needs to go into the paper -- say, three sources tell The N&O that the governor will resign tomorrow -- use of the story still must be approved by the managing editor. That happens rarely.

Why such punctiliousness? When I was a reporter in the post-Watergate era, use of anonymous sources was almost a badge of honor among reporters -- an emblem of our insider access to the workings of power, a sign to readers that the paper knew the inside scoop. But in today's environment of low confidence in the media, newspapers can't afford such cavalier squandering of believability.

"This all goes back to credibility," says N&O Managing Editor John Drescher. "We just think readers want to know where our information comes from, and it builds confidence when they know that."

The unnamed-source policy plays out in two ways: in locally generated stories reported and written by staff reporters, and in stories -- mostly national and international -- supplied by the paper's wire services.

Not much problem with the local stories, although the policy handicaps reporters sometimes. Just recently, The Charlotte Observer was able to beat The N&O with a scoop on Gov. Mike Easley's budget by using anonymous sources. The N&O reporters had most of the same information, but not on the record.

Probably most affected are The N&O's investigative reporters, Pat Stith and Joe Neff. Both value the policy on unnamed sources. "I've used them twice in my five years as an investigative reporter here -- both times on national security stories, but only backed up with documents," Neff said. "It's a great policy we have, and I wish the national press corps would boycott anonymous briefings and off-the-record roundtables en masse. People in power hide behind anonymity, which should only be given to whistleblowers or other people in actual jeopardy."

Neff points to the real dilemma with the source policy, that it handicaps local newspapers on national and international stories where they aren't doing the reporting themselves. The N&O relies on services such as AP, New York Times and Washington Post/L.A. Times for its non-local coverage. Often for competitive reasons, the national newspapers regularly rush into print stories based on unnamed sources. But there also is a culture of anonymity in Washington that allows, even encourages, reporting with flimsy substantiation.

Chastened by scandals of fictitious reporting, the Times and Post both supposedly tightened up their source policies in the last year. But recent reviews of their work show that they still are infested by "anonymice," as Slate magazine critic Jack Shafer calls unnamed sources. Daniel Okrent, the Times' public editor, found that more than 40 percent of stories in April 2004 used sources not named.

That kind of fast-and-loose fact-gathering, unfortunately, works its way downstream to The N&O and other papers. In any given week, you can find multiple violations of The N&O's source policy. Last Tuesday, the paper did report the Bin Laden-Zarqawi connection in a brief, from the L.A. Times, that quoted an "official, who spoke on condition of anonymity."

On Feb. 27, The N&O ran a lengthy New York Times story about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program using these attributions: "a senior administration official," "a European official," and "a European official asking not to be identified because the discussions were confidential and sensitive." Not a single named source was used in the story.

In the first instance, the use of sources was approved by Drescher, the managing editor. Publication of the Iran story, said Nation and World Editor Andy Bechtel, was a mistake.

The anonymice also find their way to The N&O's online edition, newsobserver.com. The lead story on Feb. 17, about President Bush's choice of John Negroponte to be intelligence czar, confided thusly: "According to one well-informed administration official, former CIA director Robert Gates was Bush's first choice but Gates and some other candidates declined the post. They worried that the legislation establishing the intelligence job was too vague in outlining its authority, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity." That was an AP story.

Drescher acknowledged that the reins have been looser on the online operation, which updates stories throughout the day (but, with 50,000 weekday readers, affects The N&O's credibility nearly as much as the print publication).

All this points up how much incredible information, literally, is out there. It's a finger-in-the-dike proposition to protect one local newspaper -- and its readers -- from information that can't be verified. The N&O does a respectable job of that with local coverage and a better job than most newspapers with the wire service news it doesn't control. But unfortunately, until the standards upstream are better, the paper still needs to come with a warning label: Let the reader beware.

The Public Editor can be reached at ted.vaden@newsobserver.com or by calling (919) 836-5700.

Anonymous said...

Translation.... When we cover the local school board meeting our high journalistic standards apply, however for everything else, it is somebody else's fault.

McClatchy Watch said...

Really, anonymous 11:07? I don't know about N&O reporters, but Warren Strobel doesn't seem to be bound by the contraints you mention. Doesn't the N&O publish stuff by Strobel?

Archer05 said...

Nice try [Anonymous] Ted Vaden. While you write this tripe, you better practice whistling 'Taps.'

“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Ted? You just put your lips together and blow.”

Anonymous said...

Yes, The N&O does not use stories from the D.C. bureau that do not meet its sourcing standards, nor from other services or staff reporters.

That is not to say there is a blanket ban on anonymity. If multiple services are reporting the same facts, the paper will use them and note that. And in very, very rare occasions the paper will use anonymously sourced stories from its own reporters. But these are few and far betweeen.

Anonymous said...

hahahaha

"USER COMMENTS ARE TOTALLY LIKE REAL REPORTING WHERE'S THE PARITY"

you are so sad mr. mcclatchywatch

Anonymous said...

Reading the comments on news stories, be it newspaper or otherwise, is like watching a car wreck. I don't want to, but I can't tear my eyes away. Most of the people commenting fell off the short bus and got run over by it.

JWM said...

I don't know whether Anon 11:07 is Ted Vaden, but there are some things readers here should know about the N&O's "very strict policy on anonymous sources."

Nothing in its "very strict policy" prevented the N&O from running on Mar. 25, 2006 a front page story based on an anonymous interview with the false accuser in the Duke lacrosse case.

The N&O published things the false accuser said without ever checking to see if they were true. They weren't.

N&O columnist Ruth Sheehan is quoted extensively in "It's Not About the Truth." Among other things, she admitted that then Durham DA Mike Nifong was the anonymous source for her Mar. 27, 2006 column: "Team's silence is sickening."

What's more, Sheehan added that she was persuaded to use the information from Nifong by someone at the N&O. (Full disclosure - Sheehan subsequently apologized for the column. The N&O has said nothing to readers about Nifong serving as the anonymous source for the column.)

On Apr. 2, 2006 the N&O published a photo of the anonymous VIGILANTE poster which targeted members of the lacrosse team.

On Apr. 16, 2006 the N&O published on its front page the "Mother, dancer, accuser" story. It was mostly puffery about the accuser.

The N&O used many anonymous sources in that story for "news" about how wonderful the accuser was.

A journalist friend of mine says the easy and honest way for the N&O to explain its policy on anonymous sources is just to say: "We never use anonymous sources except when we want to."

Keep up the good work, McClatchy Watch.

John in Carolina

Anonymous said...

Ah yes... the Duke Lacrosse story. Another moment in the history of journalistic excellence.

Anonymous said...

yes it was all journalism's fault that...my god you're serious