Copy editing and anonymity

The Web site for the McClatchy Washington bureau includes this statement on anonymous sources. The policy is written largely from the point of view of reporting.

Anonymous sourcing, however, is not only an issue for reporters. It affects copy editors as well. After all, we have to edit these stories, and sometimes we are deciding whether to run them at all.

In my days on the wire desk at The News & Observer, we ran into this problem almost every evening. The New York Times and The Washington Post would have an exclusive story that relied heavily (or entirely) on unidentified sources. Should we run the story in our paper?

For years, that is what we did. We routinely ran anonymously sourced wire stories, edited them and wrote headlines for them. Some of these stories were blockbusters on the front page, others inside. On occasion, some reporters on the staff would point out an apparent double standard: The paper frequently published wire stories with anonymous sources, but our reporters could only use them in extreme cases.

That changed in 2003, partly because of those complaints but also because some anonymously sourced stories were wrong. Luckily, we dodged Judith Miller, but the one we got burned on was about Jessica Lynch, the soldier held captive during the Iraq war. In the Washington Post story we published on the front page about the rescue, an anonymous source described how Lynch had fought with her captors when she was first captured, firing her weapon and dodging the enemy.

It turned out that Lynch hadn’t done those things. Later that spring, we ran a Chicago Tribune story that clarified the story of her capture and rescue, and dispelled some of the mythology that had been built around her service in Iraq.

At that time, we began to restrict our uses of anonymously sourced wire stories. The new policy required the approval of the managing editor, who made it clear that he was reluctant to grant permission. We had to make a case for why an anonymously sourced story was important. Did other wire services have the same information? Were they using anonymous sources too? Will there be a way to verify in the near term what this anonymous source is saying? These questions all played a role in these decisions.

Copy editors, including those working the wires, should question the use of unidentified sources the same way others in the newsroom do. Copy editors should also be included in the conversation when a newspaper, magazine or Web site sets a policy on using these sources. We’re as responsible as everyone else in guarding our credibility.