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This summer's unmasking of Watergate's Deep Throat reminded many Americans of the role of the anonymous source in breaking an explosive story. But that anonymity requires trust in sources and also in reporters. Last year, USA Today acknowledged that its former star reporter, Jack Kelly, made up quotes and entire stories. He hid some of his fabrications behind unnamed sources. Now many newspapers have attempted to tighten their rules allowing the use of confidential sources, but no major paper has taken a harder line than USA Today. NPR's David Folkenflik recently paid a visit to the paper's offices.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
As a First Amendment lawyer and newspaper editor, Ken Paulson's heard an earful from the public on the press. It hasn't been good.
Mr. KEN PAULSON (Editor, USA Today): Time and again, it was anonymous sources. We don't trust you because we don't know where your information's coming from.
FOLKENFLIK: Paulson became USA Today's editor last year after the Jack Kelly scandal; the worst in the paper's 23-year history.
Mr. PAULSON: It seemed logical to put into place a series of steps that would help ensure our credibility, the accuracy of our quotes and the reliability of the information we're using from anonymous sources and others.
FOLKENFLIK: Ever since, the newsroom has been filled with sticklers.
Ms. CAROLYN PESCE (Editor, USA Today): Yeah, but can we attribute it to the...
FOLKENFLIK: At USA Today's gleaming new headquarters, in suburban Virginia, Carolyn Pesce is one of three editors debating the merits of the sourcing in a three-paragraph item.
Ms. PESCE: What about if we just said--I mean, we know they send doctors over there. I mean, we've written that before. So what about if we said they have this exchange program where...
Unidentified Man: People...
Unidentified Woman: Yeah, we've got a number, but it's--we're not sure of this Web site.
FOLKENFLIK: The newspaper's trying to be much more precise about how it knows what it knows and in signaling that to readers. Paulson puts strict guidelines in place about sourcing and attribution. Anonymous sources can only be used when the information is vital to a story, when it can't be found anywhere else, and when the source has an awfully good reason not to be named. Reporters have to tell their bosses who their sources are and the use of the source has to be approved by one of the paper's most senior editors. On average, one article a day in USA Today features an anonymous source. Editors say that's down 75 percent since last October, and senior figures like deputy managing editor Owen Ullmann say the quality of coverage has improved. He's issued a challenge to any reporter who thinks otherwise.
Mr. OWEN ULLMANN (Deputy Managing Editor, USA Today): If you can prove to me that our policy prevents you from writing a really good story that we all agree the public has a right to know, I will personally give you a hundred dollars out of my wallet.
FOLKENFLIK: No takers yet. But visit the paper's Washington bureau at a restored art deco bus terminal and you'll find some reporters who do have concerns. Toni Locy covers the US Justice Department and says her job has gotten a lot tougher. She says many of the people she talks to for stories are forbidden by department policy or law to talk to the media on the record, and Locy says the policy sends an unintended message to reporters.
Ms. TONI LOCY (USA Today): Jack Kelly hurt the paper. The editors here are still smarting from that. They haven't gotten over that. Whether it's intentional or not, the message that comes through to us is that we're all being treated like our names are Jack Kelly. My name is not Jack Kelly.
FOLKENFLIK: While Locy and other reporters see some benefits to the policy, they say there are real drawbacks, too. Barbara Slavin's the diplomatic affairs correspondent for USA Today. She says if reporters find themselves able to cover only the official version of events, they may miss the real story.
Ms. BARBARA SLAVIN (USA Today): I took a trip to Iran earlier this year and I was told that I could not put anything in the newspaper that did not have somebody's name attached to it. It was a real impediment. I couldn't get in some critical comments of people about their government because they were afraid to put their name to it. I think that's still a lingering problem. I hope that's addressed.
FOLKENFLIK: Other major newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have also tightened their practices on anonymous sources. But pick a day at random to compare. On August 16th, for example, USA Today relied on anonymous sources in two stories. The Washington Post quoted unidentified people in seven articles. The New York Times did so in 10. The stories in The Post range from the serious to the frivolous. In one, an investigative reporter cited unnamed congressional and administration sources to reveal details about spy satellites.
Another piece in The Post quoted at least six people without naming them. The story focused on blue jeans. USA Today editors say that piece couldn't have run in their pages these days. Post executive editor Leonard Downey Jr. declined to be taped for this story, but he says that feature relied on a reporter's observations, not the kind of watchdog reporting on government agencies that might require more rigorous attribution.
But some reporters argue that it's the hardening scoops which often require unnamed sources.
Mr. JACK NELSON (The Los Angeles Times): Well, you know, I've used confidential sources for over 50 years and starting out on the Biloxi Mississippi Daily Herald.
FOLKENFLIK: Jack Nelson is Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is chief political correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. He's retired now, but he says anonymous sources were essential throughout his career.
Mr. NELSON: I was investigative reporter for the Atlanta Constitution. I had confidential sources who told about a nurse performing major surgery on patients, a doctor using experimental drugs on patients without the knowledge of the patients or their guardians or relatives, about a hospital superintendent who was actually an addict himself.
FOLKENFLIK: Nelson says he doesn't expect to read blockbuster investigative reports in USA Today. It's not the paper's strong suit, he says.
Mr. NELSON: And that's maybe one reason that they can get by with a more stricter policy on confidential sources, because they don't do as much of that really hard-edged investigative reporting.
FOLKENFLIK: USA Today's journalists generally reject that. John Diamond reports on national security issues. He says he's convinced more sources to go on the record under the new policy, and that's a good thing. But he says there are pitfalls, too. Diamond helped to write articles that acknowledged some doubts about the Bush administration's claims Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of 2003 and subsequent failure to find any such weapons. He's proud of that.
Mr. JOHN DIAMOND (USA Today): As I go back and I've looked at those stories, I have to say that I'm not sure those stories necessarily would have run, or would have run as written, had they been done more recently.
FOLKENFLIK: Diamond's bosses say important stories can draw upon anonymous sources, but USA Today editor Ken Paulson says they have to be a rare exception.
Mr. PAULSON: The truth is, if you don't have a named source in a story, your readers will believe that story less, and we don't want to go down that road too often.
FOLKENFLIK: How far down that road remains an open question. Editors at USA Today are starting to plan brown-bag lunches for staffers to talk about how well the policy on anonymous sources has worked. And reporters say the policy has eased up just a bit in recent weeks. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.
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