WaPo and Standards for Anonymous Quotes

By February 24, 2008Briefly Legal, Communications

James Taranto, who compiles and writes The Best of the Web column for the online Wall Street Journal, takes delight in pointing out the stretches reporters go to justify a quote’s anonymity. We offer this one for consideration, taken from The Washington Post’s Saturday story, “Spy Law Lapse Blamed for Lost Information.” The issue is the granting of retroactive immunity to telephone companies that acceded to the federal government’s request to assist in monitoring of foreign communications by suspected terrorists. The telephone carriers declined comment, reasonably enough given pending litigation.

But some people familiar with their thinking said that the companies reduced cooperation for practical reasons.

“The skittishness and concern is the companies are already spending a great deal of money on a number of suits pending that they don’t have the ability to defend against because of the State Secrets Act,” said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “That’s why the companies are saying, ‘We just can’t put ourselves in the position of having another round of suits against us because there’s no law in place at the moment that will protect us from litigation.’ “

Now, that’s a reasonable observation that’s probably accurate. But how in the world is a reader supposed to judge the credibility of that source? And citing a topic’s sensitivity as an excuse for skipping attribution? That’s a standard that allows pretty much every comment in a political or legal story to be made anonymously.

From Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor, in a March 7th, 2004 column.

That’s why we will try to explain to readers why a source is not being named. We also will strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why such a source would be knowledgeable and whether the source has a particular point of view — for example, “a police official involved in the investigation,” “an aide to a Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee” or “a senior Pentagon official who disagrees with the administration’s policy.”


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