Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » When is it OK to use anonymous sources?


At last week's ethics board meeting, we revisted our policy on the use of anonymous sources in local copy. We started by reviewing the policies of other newspapers, as summarized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. We adopted the policy expressed by the San Jose Mercury News:
"The Advocate should strive to avoid the use of unidentified sources. Reporters shall make every effort to get sources to speak on the record. When that is impossible, reporters shall make every effort to get the information elsewhere.

"We will attribute information to anonymous sources only when news value warrants and it cannot be obtained for attribution.

"If an unidentified source must be used, the reason shall be given in the story. The story shall also make a strong effort to indicate the source's credibility by describing the source as fully as possible without identifying him or her.

"A supervising editor must be told the identity of unidentified sources before any story based on those sources will be published. The same editor, of course, has the obligation to protect the confidentiality of the sources. "

However, we won't go as far as we have in the past of banning the use of anonymous sources in wire stories. We rely on other editors, primarily at the Associated Press, to apply the same high journalistic standards before allowing the use of anonymous sources. Whether we like it or not, many stories from Washington, D.C., often come from anonymous sources. For example, the AP's first story about the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was based on an anonymous source.

We also discussed creating a written ethics manual. Our policies on moderating our online forums and using anonymous sources will be the first entries in this manual. In the spirit of transparency with our readers, I also will be blogging about these ethical issues.

At next month's meeting, we'll discuss a gifts policy for the newsroom; review our policy on naming people arrested; and examine the community involvement of our owners and newsroom.

Please let me know what you think. Thanks again, Toni Anne, for your insight into how we moderate this online forum.