Readers of The New York Times may have noticed that the paper of record is getting very explicit about why it chooses not to name some sources. Instead of just seeing an official quoted “on the condition of anonymity,” we’re learning why the person asked not to be named—or at least, the reason that the source gave to the reporter.
Sometimes these descriptions state the obvious, like the Qatari official discussing his country’s plans to sell the Al Jazeera network: He wanted to go unnamed because he “could be more candid about the situation if he was not identified.” Other times, the reasons listed are instructive, giving readers a hint of the context and background that shaped a story. That enhances the story for readers and probably creates a subtle disincentive for reporters to use anonymous sources, which are both good.
At the same time, because the anonymous source can dictate the reason listed for his or her anonymity, a self-serving quote can be bolstered by an equally self-serving rationale for staying nameless. Some anonymous leaks are deliberate parts of a media campaign undertaken with full knowledge of the leaker’s bosses. Thus, when the article says the leaker is unnamed “because aides are not supposed to discuss the policy” instead of the true reason—”because his boss told him to call reporters to defuse this potentially disastrous story”—the reader is ill-served.
So the rule for readers, as always, is caveat emptor. To enhance your skills as an emptor, try the following Times Anonymous Source Quiz:
Choose from the answers provided below each question:
1. On Monday, one Times article quoted a source who spoke “on the condition of anonymity because the topic is politically delicate.” What was the subject of that article?
2. A second Times article on Monday discussed safety concerns surrounding NASA’s plan to return the shuttle fleet to active service in May, more than two years after the February 1, 2003, loss of Columbia and her seven-member crew. The piece quoted multiple unnamed sources. Which of the following was NOT a reason cited for keeping a source nameless?
Match the reason for requesting anonymity to the story in which it was used:
3. “because they did not want to upstage the release of the president’s budget”
4. “because of the confidential nature of the session being described”
5. “they were not supposed to give out details of the budget”
6. “fearing retaliation from corporate interests”
7.The January 23 Times featured a piece headlined “Stadium Push by Bloomberg May Come at His Political Peril.” It included the following statement:
What is the missing word?
(Answers: 1.C, 2.C, 3.C, 4.A, 5.B, 6.D, 7.D)