Anonymous sources and a newspaper’s bond of trust

The Daily Herald sets five conditions for permitting the use of an anonymous source in our reporting. The New York Times editorial board’s decision to permit the writer of a scathing insider view of the Donald Trump administration clearly met three of them. On two others, there’s much room for debate — and, though we might ultimately allow such a thing in our paper, we would use all that room on the way to making a decision, as we assume the Times did as well.

Here are the criteria we apply whenever one of our writers or editors is considering quoting someone anonymously or using an unnamed source in a news story: The information must be important; we must be able to get it nowhere else; if known, the source would face harm or serious loss; the reporter must be able to divulge the source to his or her editor; and we must consider how the source benefits by providing the information.

On the matters of identity, importance and risk, the Times writer certainly meets our conditions. But on the others — exclusive information and motive? Here, there’s room for discussion, and some serious questions ought to be resolved before taking the extremely unusual step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed on the Opinion page.

Strict standards on anonymous sources are important to a news organization. The driving quality of our business is trust. To nurture it, we have to let readers know the source of our information so they can evaluate the validity for themselves. And when we consider a story so important or difficult to research that we have to protect a source, readers should have faith we are acting responsibly and in their interest.

In the case of an Op-Ed, the standard becomes still stricter, because even for something as simple as a letter to the editor, we require publication of the identities and hometowns of writers so as to ensure productive conversations in which people have enough confidence in their views to stand behind them with their names.

Unlike the tension imposed through President Trump’s constant criticism of The Times, it’s extremely rare for political leaders the Daily Herald covers, even those who may not like us, to openly sow discontent with us. But in the hypothetical case that the staff member of an important leader who publicly berated us as openly and frequently as Trump does the Times came to us asking to publish an explosive exposé without identifying him or her, I would want a clear understanding of the individual’s motive and confidence that the information is truly unique.

To be sure, there’s no question that the public has a serious interest in the picture if the office of the president of the United States is chaotic. But considering that that picture has been vividly described almost from the day President Trump was inaugurated and the Times Op-Ed adds little to nothing of substance to it, the primary value in its publication is that it appears to affirm from the inside what has been reported in various forms almost weekly for 20 months. To me, that affirmation is diminished if the source is not identified.

I’d also want to be clear about a senior staffer’s motive for penning an essay that can only further erode trust in an administration whose objectives the writer claims to support. Purportedly in the Times case, the writer wants to reassure the public that, in the essay’s phrase, “adults in the room” are counterbalancing the boss’s most dangerous tendencies. Is that reason enough for someone to risk a high-placed job in an administration that the person wants to succeed? Times editors say the were convinced of that, but it’s not an easy sell.

Is the writer working to subvert the president in favor of a different candidate with similar views? Does the person just want to unload his or her embarrassed conscience? Those explanations have some potential, but it’s certainly not worth risking the credibility of the Daily Herald or its Opinion page for someone’s selfish aims, especially considering in the Times case that another possible motive is simply to trick the publication into an act that plainly plays into the president’s narrative — to an adoring, immovable fan base, by the way — that the paper is out to get him.

I have read and heard the Times editorial page editor discuss the process that led to publication of the anonymous Op-Ed. It’s clear that he and the newspaper did not take the step lightly, but some readers will remain skeptical.

Anonymous sources can be critical to providing important information or insights that could be acquired no other way. But misused, they can weaken our primary bond with readers — trust. So, we’re careful to keep the strength of that bond at the core of every discussion we have and every decision we make regarding identification of our writers or our sources.

jslusher@dailyherald.com

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