Monday, September 07, 2009

Anonymous Sources Watch: Washington Post

The recent baffling story in the Washington Post where an article penned by Peter Finn, Joby Warrick, Julie Tate and Walter Pincus reported (entirely from anonymous sources) that torture worked and prevented attacks, has led me to launch a new project. The Anonymous Sources Watch: Washington Post edition. All this week I will be tweeting the stories, quotes, and descriptions of the anonymous sources printed in the Washington Post’s newspaper (Virginia edition). You can follow me on Twitter hashtag (#anonymousWP ). I’m offering no judgment about whether these were “good” or “bad” uses of anonymous sources, you can follow the project and judge yourself. If any occur in strictly online stories or quotes are changed let me know.

Via Twitter Jay Rosen suggests "Rate each use by whether it obeys the Post guidelines."

(Good suggestion, except I can't. Their internal guidelines aren't made "public.")

As recently as August 16 the WP ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote a column about these guidelines.

The Post has strict rules on the use of anonymous sources. They're spelled out in detail -- more than 3,000 words -- in its internal stylebook.

Post policies say that editors have an "obligation" to know the identity of a reporter's unnamed sources so they can "jointly assess" whether they should be used. "The source of anything that appears in the paper will be known to at least one editor," the stylebook says.
I've just emailed the Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander for the sections of their internal stylebook that deal with use of anonymous sources. I will post them online if I get them. Back in November 2005 the former ombudsman, Deborah Howell, offered to send them to anyone who requested them.

UPDATE II: Washington Post Ombudsman responds:
Thanks for writing. Although I have quoted from The Post's policies on sourcing, I also have noted that those policies are not available to the public. I think they should be, and have made the case in a column. The policies are in the process of being updated, and I've quoted Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli as saying they will be made public once the updating is completed (I suspect that may take several months). But for now, they are not.

As you may know, I operate independent of The Post's newsroom and management. Notwithstanding the offer from Deborah, I think you should probably direct your request to someone in Post management (like Mr. Brauchli).

Good luck with your project.
Andy Alexander
Washington Post Ombudsman

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