Shooing Anonymice?


Your news organization's veracity—and your ability to monitor it—might soon be jacked up a notch or two, if some new sourcing guidelines quietly proposed by The Associated Press in December are approved by the AP's union. According to the document, which Editor & Publisher wrote about here,

[M]aterial from anonymous sources may be used only if:
1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

Further, reporters "should explain in the story why the source requested anonymity and, whenever possible, describe the source's motive for disclosing the information," and "must provide attribution that establishes the source's credibility; simply quoting 'a source' is not allowed." Articles containing anonymous sources must be run under a byline (AP dispatches frequently do not); they "must not say that a person declined comment when he or she is already quoted anonymously," and complaints about the anonymice's truthfulness must be processed pronto.

Why does this matter? The AP is the globe's dominant general-news service, "the largest and oldest news organization in the world," producing more of our news diet—especially on foreign affairs—than most people realize. Also, being a cooperative of leading news organizations, its practices can quickly become the industry norm (most newspaper copy-editing manuals, for example, derive from the AP Style Guide). As Jack Shafer and others have repeatedly pointed out, cracking down on the use of anonymous sources is one of the easiest journalistic reforms to announce, and one of the hardest to pull off. I've long argued that describing in as much detail possible why a source wishes to remain anonymous would bring important new details to a story (such as, "people who work for the government's X Dept. are terrified for their jobs, and/or are inveterate gossips"), and weed out much of the usage (such as my own) that's based on journalistic laziness. (Link via Howard Owens.)