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Good news for readers of the Washington Post: The sources that the paper cites for its daily scoops are more familiar than ever with the topics they’re dishing about.
It’s a mathematical fact.
Over the past month, the Post has used the term “sources familiar with” approximately 63 times—a huge jump over the previous two months, which averaged 42 mentions of this cutting-edge term of high journalistic ethics.
A standard example of this phrasing comes from a March 19 Business story: “[A]ccording to sources familiar with the probes, the SEC launched a review of oil companies’ financial statements in recent months…”
Here’s another instance, from a March 17 Sports story: “According to sources familiar with the situation, the Redskins would target a defensive end if the club trades down from the No. 5 pick in April’s NFL draft.”
The uptick in “familiar with” language arises from a concerted Post effort to boost the paper’s credibility, as explained in a recent Outlook-section piece by Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. The much-discussed Feb. 18 policy directive on sourcing reads, in part, as follows: “The Post values accuracy above all else. Without it, our paper loses the very commodity it has spent decades to build: credibility. So please make sure that your sources are familiar with the subject matter on which they are quoted.”
Actually, that’s a joke.
The real language of the Feb. 18 initiative states, “We want to make our reporting as transparent to the readers as possible so they may know how and where we got our information.” The document contains guidelines on dealing with confidential sources, quotations, and other everyday journalistic bugaboos.
And it offers up “familiar with” as a route to ethical wholesomeness: “Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources. This means avoiding attributions to ‘sources’ or ‘informed sources.’ Instead we should try to give the reader something more, such as ‘sources familiar with the thinking of defense lawyers in the case’…”
That way, the reader knows that the material is coming from the defense camp—or maybe the judge, or the jury, or people who have attended court hearings, or the bailiff…
Jo-Ann Armao, the paper’s Metro editor, says it’s hard for the reader to gauge the impact of the new guidelines. “[There are] instances in which we’ve taken things out because [sources] haven’t been identified,” says Armao.
Accountability-oriented chatter in the newsroom, says Managing Editor Steve Coll, is the desired end of the guidelines. “I am not so worried about the rule-making aspect of this. I hope and expect that reporters and editors will decide for themselves,” he says. “We just want to make sure that the discussion is taking place.”
Yes, the discussion is taking place, and it’s a groundbreaking one:
Reporter: I’ve been banging away at this terrorism piece, but my sources won’t put their names to their comments.
Editor: Shit, that’s trouble, especially with these new guidelines still fresh as the cherry blossoms. Let’s think about this….Do you feel these guys know what they’re talking about?
Reporter: Sure. I mean, I feel they’re familiar with the situation.
Editor: Then just put that down!
Whatever the precipitating conversation, “sources familiar with” seems poised to overtake “senior administration official” and “Brookings Institution scholar” as the iconic three-word phrase of the Washington Post. It’s a frequently recurring star of Sports, which is constantly reporting on hush-hush contract negotiations, and Business, which is heavy on the various whispers surrounding corporate scandals.
Readers have to be overjoyed. No longer will they wonder whether sources quoted in the Post are unfamiliar with the topic at hand. There’ll be no extracting quotes from dry cleaners or taxi drivers on the Federal Election Commission or the quest for Osama bin Laden. President George W. Bush can’t be quoted anonymously on, say, newspapers.
To take its ethical upgrade one step further, the Post is now endeavoring to identify why its topically informed sources are seeking anonymity. For example, a March 23 piece on the Department of Homeland Security’s stance on securing railroads against terrorist attacks discussed a proposal to try voluntary luggage screening at a local Amtrak station. The plan didn’t make it to the next stop, according to the Post.
“[F]ederal officials ultimately decided the program would be too cumbersome and it was dropped, said a source familiar with those discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the project.” (Emphasis added)
Let’s break that last part down, just to point out how far ahead of the ethical pack the Post stands.
•“said a source familiar with those discussions”—That’s journalistic accountability boiled down to seven words. Bravo.
•“who spoke on condition of anonymity”—This confirms for the reader that the source doesn’t want to be named; simply saying “a source” leaves open the possibility that the Post isn’t naming the source because it fears misspelling the name.
•“because of the sensitivity of the project”—Readers might suppose that the motivation for anonymity here is obvious: The subject at hand is terrorism and the possibility of trains being blown up. But this explanation completely rules out other motivations—for example, the source doesn’t want his name used because he told his mistress he was a rocket scientist.
According to Armao, an earlier draft of the story attributed that information simply to “a source.” “Cognizant of our new policy,” writes Armao via e-mail, the reporter “wanted to explain to the reader a bit more about the source and why the source requested anonymity.” —Erik Wemple