Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Federal Computer Week’s policy on unnamed sources

Chris Dorobek

The crux is that we want to avoid it whenever possible. Using unnamed sources hurts our credibility. [Read Poynter’s “Readers: Anonymous Sources Affect Media Credibility,” June 17, 2005] Let’s be honest – people think we just make it up. So unnamed sources need to be the exception, not the rule. And in those exceptional cases, we still need to watch out for the reader and attempt to give them as much context as we possibly can.

I understand that there are circumstances where we do need to use unnamed sources. But in those cases, we need to provide readers with some context about this person. Is he or she with government? industry? It can make a significant different… and without that context, the person appears to have the “voice of God,” when he or she may actually be a vendor who is saying that the government really needs to have a single HR system and -- presto! -- the company just happens to have a perfect solution that will solve all of the government’s problems.

We want to use unnamed sources only when the information is so important that we cannot get it anywhere else. If somebody is just saying that having unified financial systems are important, it probably isn’t necessary to quote them anonymously. In those cases, it is probably worth calling more people. (It is probably still worth the interview, but it may not be worth using in print. Those interviews, however, can give you background that can help flesh out your story and future interviews.) By contrast, there are situations where a vendor will say that some agency system is off track and they could lose a contract if they were to say so publicly. Even then, I think it is important to provide some context about who this person is – identifying them as a vendor at minimum… or a vendor with knowledge of the program… or a vendor competing for the program… or something that gives the readers a sense of any conflicts, if there are any.

At minimum, [FCW editor-in-chief] John [Monroe] and/or I will need to know who these people are so we can make the assessment about any potential conflicts, etc. Both John and I [and Federal Computer Week] would stand by the agreement, but it is important that your sources know that editors do need to know who is being quoted.

Finally, with all of that said, we stand by our agreements. Remember that going on background (a source is not used by name; you need to establish the parameters of that up front – is this person called an industry official or agency official or what) or to go off-the-record (you will not quote the person at all) all needs to be worked out up front. This is an ethically – if not legally -- binding agreement. We stand by those agreements. We always have and we always will. If we agree up front that we will not identify somebody at all, we won’t. But we always make the final decision about whether the information that person provides is important to the story.

To summarize:

* Let’s only quote anonymous sources if it is absolutely necessary.
* If we do need to make such an arrangement, do it so we can provide the reader with the necessary context – where is this person coming from?
* If that information is included in a story, make sure it is so important that it would change the reader’s understanding of the situation and that there is no other way of getting the story or that comment.

Fellow flacks, we have a role to play here. If we explain to our clients how speaking anonymously contributes to an atmosphere of distrust, we can put an end to this evil practice.

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