USA Today kills anonymice dead.

Media criticism.
March 16 2005 7:01 PM

USA Today's Better Mousetrap

A newspaper that actually observes its own anonymice guidelines!

Tomorrow, a panel of notables (and I) will ponder the menace of anonymice gnawing away at the credibility of American journalism at a National Press Club symposium grandiosely titled "Confronting the Seduction of Secrecy: Toward Improved Access to Government Information on the Record."

Not counting moderator Geneva Overholser, the panel is 15 members strong. That reduces the odds of me contributing my two cents to just about zero, especially considering the fact that audience participation is being encouraged. So, rather than pout—something I'm very good at—permit me to recycle and refresh my wisdom on the topic of anonymice.

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Although I've repeatedly inveighed against the use of anonymous sources and lectured about how they corrupt newspapers, I'm not a fundamentalist about the issue. Just two weeks ago, I toutedWashington Post reporter Dana Priest's article about the CIA's treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, which contained not one named source of any consequence. I'm willing to make sourcing exceptions for some intelligence stories because the secret nature of intelligence agencies makes official confirmation of well-reported pieces nearly impossible.

The Priest Exception, as I will now call it, can be invoked for unnamed sources whenever 1) the reporting is so detailed as to be undeniable; 2) the public's urgent need for the information trumps the petty objections of anonymice-haters such as me; and 3) the account exposes official wrongdoing. In the immediate example of Priest's CIA piece, it helps that the agency couldn't even muster a convincing non-denial of her basic story.

I rail against anonymous sources because they tend to degrade the information content of news stories in which they're quoted. Most anonymice spin and leak selectively for political, personal, or institutional gain, and all the "balancing quotations" from other sources can never erase their taint. Nowhere is this more evident than in "official background briefings," where government spokesmen put a flattering gloss on events for the captive press corps. President Bush's recent European tour produced a bumper crop of such stories, which I ridiculed a couple of weeks back.

The idea that the enthusiastic slaughter of anonymice—especially the swill-serving ones who give official briefings—will somehow bring quality journalism to a standstill is disproved five days a week by USA Today, which operates under some of the toughest anonymous-source guidelinesin the business. (See below  for the paper's guidelines.)

The newspaper doesn't ban unnamed sources from its pages, but it does require the rigorous scrutiny of top editors whenever reporters include them in stories. The managing editor must know the identity of the source. He must believe the information provided by the source and have faith that it is authoritative and first-hand. Only rarely does an anonymous source clear those high bars at USA Today.

Would USA Today have published Priest's story? Editor Kenneth A. Paulson says via e-mail that the paper's "guidelines would have required that the reporter identify the sources to a managing editor and provide some background as to why these sources were trustworthy and in a position to know. With those requirements met, we would have published a story along the lines of the Dana Priest piece."

A lot of newspapers preach an anti-anonymice gospel in their internal handbooks, but few practice it as assiduously as does McPaper. When I audited the coverage of Bush's European trip by the nation's top dailies—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal—I found that only USA Today and the Journal avoided publishing the blind and inane quotations of "senior administration officials." They served their readers with what they did print and what they didn't.

A new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that anonymous sourcing is down at the largest newspapers, which is good news. What's more telling from my point of view, however, is how rare anonymous sourcing is at small and mid-range newspapers compared to the big dailies. According to the study, 12 percent of all surveyed coverage in the large papers contained anonymous sources, compared to 3 percent at the smallest and 6 percent at the mid-range papers.

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