Confidential sources, New York Times style

Bryon Calume, public editor of the New York times, devotes his column this week to assessing the new rules at the times for using confidential sources.

Two major changes have occurred since Bill Keller took over as executive editor. One is that an editor must know (and approve) the identity of the person to whom confidentiality is granted. The second is that readers should be told why the source as requested confidentiality. This is a good policy for openness, but it can also lead to some awkward writing.

It has given rise to some phrasing such as “a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because most staff members are not authorized to speak about the vacancy” and “two Pentagon officials who have worked on the project and were granted anonymity so they would describe the changes before an official announcement expected later this week.”

Sometimes, as readers have pointed out to Calume, the reasons given by the Times reporters in the story are undercut by the information itself. Still, despite its awkwardness, the Times is trying to be more transparent for its readers, and other news organizations should follow its lead (as they inevitably will).

(Posted Nov. 22, 2005)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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