Search Results for: anonymous
It is “our job to know about ‘experts’ conflicts of interest” and share that information with our audience (or not use experts whose conflicts are problematic). As we’ve said, it’s not optional.
Click here for related reading from JournalistsResource.org. It includes “some questions journalists should ask when researching think tanks.” Among them:
- “Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom. …
- “Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding. …
- “Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality? …
- “Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence. …
- “Does it have a conflict of interest policy?”
(“Memmos;” May 30, 2017)
Everything in this note has been said before, but needs to be said again. Click the links to read more.
– Is the person going to be in danger if we use a full name?
– Is the subject sensitive and among those that could come back to haunt the person because the story will live on the Web forever?
– How hard have we tried to get others with equally good stories who have no problem with the use of their full names?
2. Senior editors must be consulted before we put anonymous voices in our stories.
“Senior editor = a supervising senior editor, a DME or the Standards & Practices noodge. Senior supervising editors can weigh the issues and make the call on this. They should then flag the decision to the DMEs and the S&P. That way the DMEs and S&P can raise concerns if needed, but just as importantly can keep a handle on how often this is happening across the desks and shows.”
“When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information.”
Note: When someone is using a pseudonym they created to hide their identity, we might refer to them by that name if we believe they need to be kept anonymous. In those cases, we explain to the audience what we’re doing.
4. Explain, explain, explain.
We “describe anonymous sources as clearly as [we] can without identifying them” and we explain why they need anonymity.
Note: “NPR has learned” is never enough.
5. No attacks.
“In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. We don’t use such material in our stories, with rare exceptions. (If an individual is blowing the whistle on significant misdeeds or making an allegation of sexual assault, we may decide to air the person’s claims. But we would only make such a decision after careful deliberation with senior news managers.)”
6. No offers.
“Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.”
There is more on this subject at http://ethics.npr.org/. Just type “anonymous” or “anonymity” in the search box at the top of the page.
(“Memmos;” April 18, 2017)
In some situations and before some interviews, it is very important to make sure the people we’re speaking to have agreed to let us use their names and that they understand our reports — and their names — will “live” on digital platforms, in theory at least, forever.
We’ve discussed this before, in posts about:
Right here, we’ll stop to state what should be obvious: This is not about situations where it isn’t safe or practical to have a detailed conversation about the difference between NPR’s broadcast and digital platforms. Don’t stop running from the gunshots to discuss the fact that the story’s going on NPR.org as well. Also, this isn’t about interviews with public officials, corporate executives and others who are familiar with how the media works.
This is mostly about sensitive stories (chronic health issues; addictions; criminal histories; hate crimes; etc.) during which someone has expressed concern about being identified or we know that how we’re going to ID them requires careful thought. This is also often about stories involving minors.
Be sure it’s clear to people in such situations that we’re more than a radio network. You’d be surprised how often people still don’t realize that what we do goes on to various platforms.
Having them on tape acknowledging it’s OK to use their names is ideal. If there’s a discussion about some type of anonymity, follow the guidance on:
Getting this right is in line with one of our core principles: Respect.
Getting it right will also make it less likely that in later months or years someone will ask us to remove them from a story because “I didn’t say you could use my name.” If you ever receive such a request, by the way, don’t immediately reply. Forward it to your supervisor and the Standards & Practices editor.
(“Memmos;” May 5, 2016)
Give Rolling Stone some credit for transparency. Sean Penn’s account of his trip to meet Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán is topped with this editor’s note:
“Disclosure: Some names have had to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”
There’s a good discussion to be had about the line between activism and journalism and how far across it the “El Chapo Speaks” piece goes. Let’s set that aside for now.
This post is about two simpler issues.
First, NPR does not create pseudonyms for sources. Doing so gives the audience a reason to ask what else might have been made up. If we need to protect someone’s identity, we most often use real first names, sometimes real middle names, sometimes real “street” or nicknames that the source is known by and sometimes descriptions (the “husband,” the “sister,” the “officer,” etc.). Whatever we do, we explain it in our reports. We include the reason why the person needs anonymity.
We also pay attention to “the ‘don’ts’ of anonymity.” That is, no attacks, no disguises and no offers. The Ethics Handbook’s guidance on anonymous sourcing is collected here. Of particular importance is this guideline: “Describe Anonymous Sources As Clearly As You Can Without Identifying Them.”
Second, NPR does not show its stories to sources before broadcast or posting. Here is our guidance:
“For purposes of accuracy and fairness, there are times when we may want to review portions of a script with a source or read back a quotation to ensure we captured it correctly. We may also play audio or read transcripts of an interview to a third party if the purpose is to get that party’s reaction to what another person has said. Otherwise, however, the public is the first audience for our work — we don’t preview scripts or stories in advance of their broadcast or posting with sources, subjects of coverage or other parties outside NPR.”
(“Memmos;” Jan. 11, 2016)
What did Mark annoy us about in 2015? Here are the year’s “Memmos,” divided into categories:
ANONYMITY AND SOURCING
DACS AND OTHER STANDARD PROCEDURES
LANGUAGE TO USE AND LANGUAGE NOT TO USE
- No Change In The Way We Introduce The Islamic State (later revised; see next entry in this list)
MISTAKES: HOW TO HANDLE THEM AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
NAMES AND PRONUNCIATIONS
- Reminders On Two Names (Ofeibea Quist-Arcton & Leila Fadel)
THIS IS HOW TO DO IT!
WHAT DID WE SAY IN 2014?
(“Memmos;” Dec. 22, 2015)
The New York Times is reviewing some of its reporting about the San Bernardino terrorist couple, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple writes. The Times is looking back at a story that said Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”
The Times is examining the story and the anonymous sourcing for that claim because the FBI says it has not found any public social media postings by Farook and Malik that might have “tipped off authorities to the couple’s extremist views,” as The Two-Way writes. Instead, it looks like the couple communicated via emails and private messages.
Whether the communications were public or private is important. Wemple calls it “a gigantic deal” because the Times’ story went on to say that American immigration officials failed to uncover “what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” That’s a damning conclusion if the couple had been communicating in the open. If they weren’t doing that, the story went too far.
But this Memmo isn’t just about what the Times did. It’s about what NPR did.
Carrie Johnson, Dina Temple-Raston, Phil Ewing, Martin Kaste, Nathan Rott, Richard Gonzalez, Matt Guilhem, the Two-Way team, the Newscast desk and everyone else who touched the story* stuck to what we were confident we could say and avoided things that weren’t solid. They were precise in their language. For example, we were careful to say federal sources were telling NPR that Malik had posted a message on Facebook “at the time of the shooting.” That information has held up.
*This list is not meant to be exhaustive. If you’re among the “everyone else,” thank you.
Nurith Aizenman’s piece today on Morning Edition is highly recommended listening.
Travon Addison, “an athletic 25-year-old with short cropped hair, a wispy beard and tattoos all over his arms,” takes her through the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore. I won’t spoil it by giving away what listeners learned from Addison. You should definitely keep listening to the end. Addison is a compelling character. Nurith and her editors tell his story well.
There are two other things worth noting:
– We use Addison’s full name. That isn’t a minor detail. It helps the piece enormously. In stories in which key characters are not fully identified, we have to explain why. That takes time and can lead listeners to wonder what else that person might be hiding.
Nurith didn’t do what reporters at some news outlets do too often. She didn’t start with the presumption that Addison would want to use just his first name or perhaps even remain anonymous (because he had been arrested earlier in the week). She assumed he would be fully ID’d.
That is NPR’s standard. As we have discussed before, “we name names and do our due diligence.” What’s more, “whether to go with ‘first-name-only’ needs to be discussed and explained.”
Nurith says another person she met in Baltimore — a white woman who was marching with protesters — initially wanted only her first name to be used in any story. The woman said she didn’t want to call attention to herself. Here’s how Nurith convinced the woman to give her full name: by pointing out that doing otherwise could have just called more attention to her and raised questions about why she wanted to cloak her identity.
– We seize the moment. As she headed to Baltimore, Nurith ran through in her mind the sorts of stories she wanted to tell and the voices who could be part of those pieces. Those characters included people who live in Sandtown and could talk about what happened last week and in recent decades.
Nurith heard Addison complaining about how he and others weren’t being heard from and how outsiders don’t know anything about his neighborhood and why there were riots. So she asked him to “show me your Baltimore.”
It was a simple request that produced an excellent story.
(Memmos; May 4, 2015)
“The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”
That line from the Columbia Journalism Review‘s dissection of Rolling Stone‘s infamous investigation of an alleged gang rape underscores why the CJR report is highly recommended reading. It reminds us that the basics matter — a lot.
CJR concludes that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. … Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome.” From the report:
– “Pseudonyms. [Editors] said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a ‘case by case’ issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.”
– “Checking Derogatory Information. [The reporter and her editor] made the fateful agreement not to check [a key part of the accuser's story that put three people in an unfavorable light] with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.”
– “Confronting Subjects With Details. When [the reporter] sought ‘comment,’ she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from [the fraternity] before publication. The fact-checker relied only on [the reporter's] communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish. … If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.”
Our Ethics Handbook deals with those points. Here is where NPR stands:
– “Don’t Create Pseudonyms For Sources Whose Names We Withhold. When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we’re referring to. (Or we may refer to him or her without using a last name, if the source is comfortable with that degree of anonymity, and the situation meets our standards for granting anonymity. … )”
– “No Attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. … [Exceptions are made only after] careful deliberation with senior news managers.”
– “Give Sources Time To Respond. If our audience wonders what someone we report about had to say in his or her defense, and we haven’t provided that information or explained our efforts to get it, we have failed.”
– Give Subjects Enough Information To Be Able To Respond Effectively. “In 2005, NPR aired a story about the new editor of the Paris Review. Former staffers of the magazine — some of whom had been let go — were heard saying that the new leader was ‘betraying the vision’ of the Review’s founder, George Plimpton. What was the editor’s response to that charge? He didn’t get the chance to say. Our interview with him was done before the critics were contacted, and the editor wasn’t contacted again. NPR subsequently apologized on the air for not giving the editor the chance to answer his critics. As Bill Marimow, then-NPR vice president for news, said: ‘If the subject of the story doesn’t know what you’re going to report, how can we be fair to them?’ “
CJR‘s analysis makes clear that several people are to blame for Rolling Stone‘s failures, starting with the reporter and extending to her editors. So here’s another reminder from our handbook:
“Great journalism comes in part from the collaborative efforts of reporters, editors and producers, who all play a key role in ensuring accuracy. We believe in teamwork. But good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.”
(Memmos; April 7, 2015)
At the end of a mildly amusing story about renovations at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, The New York Times writes this:
“A second person who checked out the women’s restroom — and who asked not to be identified because she has always wanted to be an anonymous source — reported her findings by email: ‘Black shiny granite-y sink. Arched faucets by Sloan. Tasteful slate gray and powder gray tiles.’ “
Is “always wanted to be an anonymous source” a valid reason to grant anonymity? No, Korva. But was it OK this time? Speaking anonymously because he doesn’t want to be drummed out of the Noodge Union, an NPR editor said it felt fine, given the spirit of the story. “Always wanted to be an anonymous source” seems like a parody of the many questionable reasons the Times and other news outlets have granted anonymity in serious stories. There’s a case to be made it worked in this rather cheeky report.
Now, will Times‘ public editor Margaret Sullivan give this line a special place in her “AnonyWatch” series?
For more about NPR’s position on anonymity and related issues, see this post from last August:
“Reminder: Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained”
(H/T Evie Stone.)
(Memmos; Feb. 25, 2015)
There’s been a flurry of appeals to the Standards & Practices editor and the DMEs in recent weeks about identifying someone we’ve spoken to by a first name only.
At least once, a first-name-only got on the air without being discussed with either the DMEs or that S&P scold.
There’s not really a distinction between a first-name-only and anonymity. So this passage from our guidelines applies:
“If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.”
Senior editor = a supervising senior editor, a DME or the Standards & Practices noodge. Senior supervising editors can weigh the issues and make the call on this. They should then flag the decision to the DMEs and the S&P. That way the DMEs and S&P can raise concerns if needed, but just as importantly can keep a handle on how often this is happening across the desks and shows.
Another important set of words in that passage: “key interview.” (Note: We realize that sometimes it isn’t known ahead of time that a person won’t want us to use a full name. In that case, the discussion about whether to use information from that interview will obviously happen afterward.)
We should be very sparing in our granting of such status and the appearance of first-name-onlys in our reports. Listeners and readers expect us to identify the people we interview. Among the questions to consider:
– Is the person going to be in danger if we use a full name?
– Is the subject sensitive and among those that could come back to haunt the person because the story will live on the Web forever?
– How hard have we tried to get others with equally good stories who have no problem with the use of their full names?
If after a discussion it’s decided that we should grant first-name-only (or anonymous) status, then we have to agree on the language that tells listeners and readers why we’re doing that. We should always explain why someone isn’t being fully identified. It might be because:
– She fears retribution from police.
– He’s concerned his chronic condition could make employers wary of hiring him.
– Her family doesn’t know about what happened.
– He would only discuss his medical condition if his full name was withheld.
You get the idea. It’s also the case that:
“NPR does not name individuals who are the alleged victims of sexual assaults. There are exceptions at times – such as certain instances when such an individual goes public with his/her identity – and NPR editors will judge these instances on a case-by-case basis.”
Related reminders from the handbook:
– No offers. “Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.”
– No pseudonyms. “When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual — not fabricated — information.”
(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2014)
In Part One of his reports on “turmoil at the Times,” David Folkenflik said this on the air today:
“Jill Abramson would not comment for this story — but she told several associates that her rapport with Sulzberger was fraying. In recent performance reviews he had given her poor marks for alienating other senior editors.
“This story relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Those interviews yield a portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive.”
Online, David reveals more about the reporting process:
“Through an associate, Abramson declined to comment for this story, which relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Almost none were willing to speak on the record, as they either still work at the newspaper or still have professional ties to one or more of the figures at the heart of the controversy. In addition, Sulzberger asked senior editors not to speak about what happened — even with their staffs — and told journalists there not to go looking for answers, though his paper has provided some coverage.
“Nonetheless, those interviews yield a complex portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive.”
A case can be made that it would have been good to include some of this line — “almost none were willing to speak on the record, as they either still work at the newspaper or still have professional ties to one or more of the figures at the heart of the controversy” — in the on-air report. But the Morning Edition audience certainly got the message: David spoke to many different individuals who were in a position to know about Abramson and did his best to get her to talk as well.
The language both on-air and online delivers on one of the goals outlined in our guidelines:
“Describe anonymous sources as clearly as you can without identifying them.”
The language also delivers when it comes to our goals regarding transparency.
“We reveal as much as we practically can about how we discover and verify the facts we present.”
Part Two of the reports is due on All Things Considered later today.
For another look at transparency when it comes to why we felt we had to grant some anonymity, see Ari Shapiro’s recent Morning Edition piece “Corruption In Ukraine Robs HIV Patients Of Crucial Medicine.” He introduced listeners to “a pale middle-aged man with blue-gray eyes. The man asks us not to use his name. He was already fired from one job when his boss learned that he has HIV.”
None of this means that it’s open season and anonymous sources should suddenly start popping up all over. Click here for our guidelines on their use.
(Memmos, May 30, 2014)
Some news outlets put unidentified folks on the air or in their stories saying things like “that tornado sounded like a freight train” or “them politicians are all alike” or “reading Memmott’s notes is worse than going to the dentist.”
NPR doesn’t do that (mostly). If we talk to people for a piece that will be broadcast and/or put on the Web, we get their names, ages, occupations, hometowns, etc. If there’s a strong reason for giving anonymity, we have guidelines to follow and we have discussions before doing so.
The same guidelines should apply when it comes to using comments we see on social media.
A Newscast spot Wednesday about the death of Maya Angelou included quotes from two tweets by individuals we didn’t try to identify.
Now, this wasn’t the worst infraction in the world. They were words of praise. The messages were in line with many others posted on Twitter.
But, there really is no difference between the unnamed person in the street and the unnamed person on Twitter or other social media. We don’t know anything about the tweeters. We don’t know if they really believe what they wrote. We don’t know their ages. We were basically putting information from random, anonymous individuals on the air.
Using tweets or other things we find on social media that way puts us on the old slippery slope:
If we quote an anonymous tweet in a spot, why not use an anonymous voice? If we can do this when they’re words of praise, why not when the tweets are attacks?
It’s worth noting, as well, that in the Angelou spot we probably could have characterized the tone of the Twitter conversations and cited some tweets or comments posted by people whose identities we could report because they have been verified.
Which leads me to three pieces of hopefully helpful information.
– First, check out the Verification Handbook. It’s a relatively new site edited by Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute. There are tips and links to tools for verifying “user-generated content” such as Tweets and emails, and for verifying images and videos.
– Third, Pam Fessler offers some advice about things she does to check the stories and people she encounters when reporting about poverty:
“It’s something I worry about a lot because I use so many personal stories in my poverty reporting. … So I try to make sure that most of the people I profile have been referred to me by someone else who I trust for one reason or another (caseworkers, etc.).
“I also find it helps to talk to people several times — and for long interviews, in their homes if possible — because I’ve learned on this beat stories change the longer you talk with someone. This gives me a better idea what to believe or not to believe.
“But it’s certainly not foolproof. So I almost always Google the names of people I profile and then create a Google alert for that name while I’m writing and producing the story, just in case there’s some last-minute development (like an arrest).”
(Memmos, May 29, 2014)
Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter have become an integral part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. As NPR grows to serve an audience that extends well beyond radio listeners, social media are becoming an increasingly important aspect of how we interact with our audiences. Properly used, social networking sites can be valuable parts of our newsgathering and reporting kits because they can speed research and quickly extend a reporter’s contacts. They are also useful transparency tools — allowing us to open up our reporting and editing processes when appropriate. We encourage our journalists to take advantage of them.
But reporting in social media spaces requires the same diligence we exercise when reporting in other environments. When NPR bloggers post about breaking news, they do not cite anonymous posts on social media sites — though they may use information they find there to guide their reporting. They carefully attribute the information they cite and are clear about what NPR has and has not been able to confirm.
When NPR correspondents go on the air they may mention discussions they’ve seen on social media sites as reflecting in part the tone or mood or general reaction to an event. But they realize that is not the same as a scientific survey of public opinion or a substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting that leads to a deep understanding of a subject.
And all NPR journalists understand that to get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.
When we attribute information to anonymous sources, it is assumed that these are our sources and that we have obtained the information firsthand from them. If this is not the case, and we are referring to reports in other news outlets based on anonymous sources of theirs, we are meticulous about attributing the information to those other outlets and we describe as fully as possible who those sources are.
As an ethical matter, we would not want to reveal the identity of an anonymous source unless that person has consented to the disclosure. That’s why we take the granting of anonymity seriously.
Keep in mind that the legal protection provided to journalists to keep source identities, outtakes, or other confidential information secret is not 100% secure. Courts can compel journalists to testify or reveal information even when confidentiality has been promised, and refusal to reveal the information can result in jail time or fines. Judith Miller of the New York Times, for example, spent three months in jail for refusing to identify the source of the leak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.
To make matters worse, if we have promised confidentiality to a source but disclose the source’s identity, we could be liable for breach of contract. In Cohen v. Cowles Media, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not protect the press from breach of contract lawsuits when a reporter breaches a promise of confidentiality.
It is therefore possible that if a journalist makes a promise of confidentiality but is later compelled to testify, s/he may either be jailed or ordered to pay money damages. Neither is a good situation. So consult with your supervisor and our legal team before you make a promise of confidentiality. Discuss whether the promise is necessary, what the exact scope of confidentiality will be, under what conditions the source might be willing to release you from the promise, and what the potential risks to you or NPR might be. We want to be sure we can keep whatever promises we make.
When a decision is made to use information that we have obtained from a source that must remain anonymous, we describe in as much detail as we can (without revealing so much that we effectively identify that person) how they know this information, their motivations (if any) and any other biographical details that will help a listener or reader evaluate the source’s credibility.
It is never enough to say “NPR has learned” something. It is not enough to report that “officials say” something, or that some detail is “reportedly” true. If it is important for listeners or readers to know, for example, what political party the source is from, we report that information. If it is important to know what agency the source is from, we report that. If it is important to know which side of an issue the source represents, we report that. We push to get as much detail as we can about how the source knows this information, and to get the source’s agreement to report as much of that detail as possible. Was she in the room when the meeting happened? Does he have a copy of the report? Did he participate in the investigation?
Individual NPR journalists — reporters, producers, bloggers and others — do not on their own have the authority to assure any individual that information he gives us anonymously will be reported on our airwaves or by NPR.org.
For sure, sometimes in the course of reporting we gather important information that a source will only reveal if the conversation is “off the record.” But the decision as to whether that information will be reported by NPR can only be made in consultation with an editor. As the level of importance of the information rises, so should the level of editor who is pulled into the conversation. There is no hard-and-fast rule. When in doubt, editors should always err on the side of caution and consult with the next person above them.
If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.
No attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. We don’t use such material in our stories, with rare exceptions. (If an individual is blowing the whistle on significant misdeeds or making an allegation of sexual assault, we may decide to air the person’s claims. But we would only make such a decision after careful deliberation with senior news managers.)
No disguises. We may withhold a source’s name who talks to us on tape or on the record, if that individual might be put in danger, legal jeopardy or face some other serious threat if their name is revealed. We may refer to the person without using a last name, if he or she is comfortable with that degree of anonymity and if we decide the situation meets our criteria for granting anonymity. But we don’t use pseudonyms to replace their real name.
No offers. Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.
Before we rely on information from anonymous sources, we press them hard on exactly what they know and how they know it — and we press them hard for as detailed a description as possible of who they are and their motivation (if any) to use in our reports. Our goal is to tell listeners and readers as much as we can about why this person is being quoted.
So, for example, “a senior White House official who was at the meeting and heard what the president said,” is the type of language we use. “An official” is not.
We use information from anonymous sources to tell important stories that otherwise would go unreported. This is not a solo decision – the editors and producers of these stories must be satisfied that the source is credible and reliable, and that there is a substantial journalistic justification for using the source’s information without attribution. This requires both deciding whether it is editorially justified to let the person speak anonymously, and being satisfied that this person is who the piece says he is and is in a position to know about what he’s revealing. We should never be in the position of having to verify these things after a story has been broadcast or published.
Imagine, if you will, an NPR legal correspondent named Sue Zemencourt. She’s a huge fan of Enormous University’s basketball team and loves to chat online about EU. She posts comments on blogs under the screen name “enormous1.” One day, an equally rabid fan of Gigormous State (“gigormous1”) posts obnoxious comments about EU.
Sue snaps. Expletives and insults fly from her fingers on to the webpage. They’re so out-of-line that the blog blocks her from submitting any more comments — and discovers that her i.p. address leads back to NPR. The blog’s host posts that “someone at NPR is using language that the FCC definitely would not approve of” and describes what was said. Things go viral.
The basically good person that she is, Sue publicly acknowledges and apologizes for her mistake. But that doesn’t stop The Daily Show from satirizing about the “NPRNormous Explosion.”
Be circumspect about your behavior, even when the exchange feels private or anonymous. Even an email to a trusted recipient can be made public, with or without the recipient’s knowledge or consent.
Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny. And of course, we do not include anonymous attacks posted on the Web in our reports.