Times Secret Source Quiz (Shhh!)


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:


  • Multiple ChoiceChoose 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?


      • President Bush’s June 30, 2002, colonoscopy


      • The secret U.S. plan to take over the world and make everyone Christian


      An American initiative to redesign atomic weapons

    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?


      • “because of employment restrictions”


      • “because of the rules of his job”


      “because aliens can be real sticklers about these sorts of things”


  • MatchingMatch 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”

    A)“Rice Chides Russia on Quieting Dissent but Rejects Penalty”

      • (February 6, 2005)

    B)“Bush to Propose Elimination of Federal Subsidy for Amtrak”

      • (February 2, 2005)

    C)“Bush Is Said to Seek Sharp Cuts in Subsidy Payments to Farmers”

      • (February 6, 2005)

    D)“Chile’s Retirees Find Shortfall in Private Plan”

      (January 27, 2005)


  • Fill in the blank7.The January 23 Times featured a piece headlined “Stadium Push by Bloomberg May Come at His Political Peril.” It included the following statement:

    One of the mayor’s prominent supporters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of appearing to be _______ Mr. Bloomberg’s opponents, lamented, “They’re spending a tremendous amount of political capital on what is a peripheral issue in his administration.”What is the missing word?


      • hugging


      • spelunking


      • assassinating



    (Answers: 1.C, 2.C, 3.C, 4.A, 5.B, 6.D, 7.D)