Newspaper editors give a lot of lip service to the importance of reducing the number of anonymous sources—but they almost never swallow. Last February, after the Washington Post updated its rules about anonymous sources, Washington City Paper's Erik Wemple discovered a marked increase in the number of times Post stories used the construction "sources familiar with" to extend anonymity to sources. After the New York Times issued a similar sourcing memo, Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent recorded a slight increase in the number of anonymice scurrying through its pages.
In this tradition, Assistant Managing Editor Allan M. Siegal e-mailed newsroom staffers a memo yesterday (Nov. 10) titled "Re-examining Our Credibility," which announced the formation a of committee to study ways the paper might improve its accuracy and trustworthiness.
"Can we cut back, or even cut out, our attendance at background briefings by nameless officials?" the Siegal memo asks. "Can we otherwise squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages? Can we make our attributions (even the anonymous ones) less murky? Are there some stories we can afford to skip if they are not attributable to people with names?"
If the past predicts the future, we should expect the memo to inspire the anonymice to start reproducing in the New York Times faster than tribbles on the starship Enterprise!
Among the other ideas to be explored by the Credibility Committee include electronic spot-checks of stories for plagiarism; accuracy questionnaires addressed at random to subjects of Times stories; re-interviews of sources by reporters to make sure the paper got the story right; and the establishment of a system to track and reduce errors. Siegal calls on staffers to lend their good ideas to his preliminary list.
A memo like this is easy to lampoon, but it makes all the right noises about making the paper more accountable and transparent to its readers. After I filed yesterday's column about Seth Mnookin's Times book, I found myself wishing that I'd written that the horrific Howell Raines train wreck turned out to be good for the paper. It's not just because that his replacement, Executive Editor Bill Keller, is a nicer guy who feeds his staff snacks out of the palm of his hand every day at 3 p.m. It's because he's taken down a bit of the fourth wall to give readers a better look at how the paper is made. In the old days, the Times expected readers to believe what it published because it was The Authority. Under the new regime, readers are expected to believe a Times story because it persuades them. Keller's introduction of a public-editor column, which is 100 times better than I expected, has also opened the formerly closed box of the Times to substantive criticism from inside.
The most wonderful thing about the Times is that there's plenty not to like in every issue, a fact that all the memos and reformist committees in the world will never change. But if the new Siegal committee accomplishes 5 percent of what it's setting out to accomplish—especially reducing anonymous sources (an eternal bugaboo of mine)—I'll buy the newsroom all the trail mix it can eat for a week. And I'll do the hand-feeding.
Here's the Siegal memo, verbatim:
Memorandum for: THE STAFF
In the last year and a half, The Times has deepened and widened its efforts to deserve readers' trust. Most notably, we have appointed a public editor and given serious consideration to his questions and advice; we have required that every unidentified source quoted in the paper be known by name to at least one editor; we have tried to describe our sources and their motives more candidly and usefully. We'd like to believe we have reduced our dependence on anonymous sources; certainly we have begun trying and intend to push ahead.
Now, as Bill Keller told us in his town hall meetings before the election, we want to examine our practices, and our readers' demands, even more thoroughly. We especially want to examine the measures we have NOT yet taken, asking ourselves why not, and whether they could improve our accuracy and accountability.
For that purpose, Bill has asked me to put together a committee of news people to collect and evaluate those possibilities. It will be a small group, but a central part of its mandate will be to reach out to everyone anywhere in the news department who offers a useful idea. Some of our first thoughts about proposals to examine include these:
* Can we cut back, or even cut out, our attendance at background briefings by nameless officials?
* Can we otherwise squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages? Can we make our attributions (even the anonymous ones) less murky? Are there some stories we can afford to skip if they are not attributable to people with names?
* Can we encourage writers, in an organized way, to cultivate the respect of our sources by checking back with the people they have interviewed, and making sure they have both words and nuances correct?
* Is there a systematic way to keep track of the errors we make, and analyze their causes, and make better use of training to reduce their frequency?
* What are the best practices in our business for accuracy and accountability, and which ones should we adapt or emulate?
* Should we join the small number of papers that send out random questionnaires after publication, to ask our story subjects what they thought of our accuracy and the civility of their encounter with us?
* Should we print the writer's e-mail address at the bottom of each story? Does our practice have to be identical throughout the staff? Can it differ by department? By writer?
* Should we consider an electronic spot-check for plagiarism?
* Should we be responding systematically to outside critics who attack our believability for political or commercial reasons of their own? What is an effective vehicle for doing this? A column by the editor or editors on how we work?
The membership of the committee is listed below. Our introductory meeting will take place on November 11. We expect to meet for a few weeks, but not in marathon sessions like those of the 2003 Siegal Committee. We're trying to blend many kinds of expertise. We'll be grateful to everyone in the newsroom who has an idea to add to the list above, or who is willing to share thinking with the committee members.
MEMBERSHIP OF THE COMMITTEE
David Barstow, Metro
Dana Canedy, National
Rebecca Corbett, Washington
Steve Crowley, Washington Pictures
Kevin Flynn, Metro
Steve Holmes, Washington
Christine Kay, Investigations
Charles Knittle, Metro
Patrick LaForge, Metro
Mike Leahy, Managing Editor's Office
Eric Schmitt, Washington
Terry Schwadron, Newsroom Technology
Al Siegal, Chairman
Phil Taubman, Washington
Duff Wilson, Sports
Diane Cardwell, Metro
Fred Andrews (Rapporteur)
Just in case, does anybody know where I can get 500 pounds of cruelty-free trail mix at wholesale? Send bids via e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)