Building a better anonymice trap.

Building a better anonymice trap.

Building a better anonymice trap.

Media criticism.
July 18 2008 4:31 PM

Building a Better Anonymice Trap

Messrs. Starkman and Jelveh show the way.

Two days ago, Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Reviewand Zubin Jelveh of Portfolio schooled me about the deficiencies in my "Tracking the Anonymice" column of July 15.

I'd given the Wall Street Journal high marks for not attributing quotations or information to anonymice sources, but as Messrs. Starkman and Jelveh made apparent, the Journal relies as heavily on unnamed sources as any publication, and probably more. The key to flushing Journal anonymice, they write, is searching for the keywords person familiar or people familiar (Journalese for the "Source With No Name," as former Journal reporter Starkman puts it).


Searching for these unnamed sources is a breeze if you pay for a Factiva account or a subscription, but you can stalk them for free by using Google News. Just run the search string "person familiar" or "people familiar" I found two dozen such blind-sourced stories from the past four days, far exceeding the same-day totals harvested for the other papers in my sample (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post). I've added those stories to the embedded spreadsheet below and graded them.

In most cases, the Journal's unnamed sources aren't directly quoted as saying anything. They pop up in the stories to affirm that the information didn't fall into the newspaper from a skyhook but that it came from a living human being. It's easy to make fun of the construction "according to people familiar with the matter," so let's do it! I'm not the first to observe that how silly it is to attribute information to a person familiar with the matter. The Journal would never attribute information to a guy "who doesn't know his ass from his elbow about the matter," so what exactly do these attributions add? Damn little.

Starkman writes the rules governing sourcing should be tightened but that anonymously sourced stories generally don't bother him as long as they use "common sense about not allowing interested parties to blowdart enemies from the blinds in news pages." He adds, "I think it's a business-press thing. It's basically impossible to get anything in the paper without agreeing to sourcing conditions that would curl the hair of most journalism school deans. And deal stories? Forget it."

Yes, the upside is that the paper gets published. But there is, of course, a downside to capitulating to these hair-curling conditions scores of times each week, as the Journal does. It effectively encourages sources to remain anonymous and rewards them for doing so. Given the Journal's willingness to publish "familiar" sources, one would expect that on occasion those sources will mislead reporters. And why not? Named sources sometimes provide incorrect information—either accidentally or deliberately. Yet I can't remember the last time the Journal's "Corrections & Amplifications" box corrected or repudiated something a "familiar" source said in a story.


Another point: Unnamed sources can injure their enemies without relying on blow darts. Sometimes a light puff of air shot in the right direction can be as devastating. When reporters rely on unnamed sources, they run the risk of giving their unaccountable sources the power to manipulate the news. For whose benefit are the "people familiar with Microsoft's thinking" cited in a recent Journal article speaking? For Microsoft? For posterity? When the Journal reports (subscription required) that a Weinstein Co. deal with Showtime "could be worth $500 million to $700 million to the studio over seven years, according to people familiar with the terms," surely it matters whether the familiar people work for Weinstein or Showtime. When so many Journal stories are populated with "familiar" people, what tools do readers have to assess truth value?

If a source has an interest in the way a story is written, he'll do his best to play the reporter. This is true whether the source is on the record or cited anonymously. And the more anonymity he's given, the greater his opportunity to play the reporter and hence the reader. A case could be made that the business press (and the business pages of regular dailies) should be extra vigilant about the use of anonymous sources because their reports move markets: Somebody stands to make or lose money based on every paragraph.

Zubin Jelveh used Factiva and a swarm of keywords beyond familiar (condition, insist, request) to smoke out even more anonymice. He expanded his search from the four dailies I've been tracking to include the Associated Press, Reuters, and USA Today. His rough finding: The Journal has—by far—the highest anonymice-to-published-story ratio. (Jelveh posted a clever piece yesterday suggesting that the New York Times use more anonymous sources.)

Thanks to Starkman and Jelveh's critiques, the Slate anonymice trap has improved. But the project is too big for me and Slate intern Kara Hadge to do on our own, so please help. Use the form below to drop a dime on the anonymice you find nibbling in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.


To view the whole Google spreadsheet, see this page. To open the news stories on the embedded page, right-click on the link and chose "open in new window." Data collected between June 29 and July 17.


Here are Reuters' basic sourcing guidelines. Send e-mail offers to join the anonymice posse to, and many thanks to Garnette Cadogan. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Starkman in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to