Anonymity Because

In 2004, a bunch of newspapers (including the New York Times) instituted a new policy requiring that articles, when possible, should explain the reasons why the paper granted a source anonymity.

The new policy has created a great empirical opportunity — because in practice the required reason is given after the phrase:

“[source] was granted anonymity because … “.

The impact of the policy was immediate. In 2003 there were only 730 A.P. articles with the phrase, but by 2005 there were 9,451 articles using the phrase.

A simple search for “anonymity because” opens up a treasure trove of information on what journalists think constitutes a valid excuse for granting anonymity. Other bloggers have collected a variety of examples:

1. Spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. (WaPo)
2. Spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. (WaPo)
3. Spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. (Hartford Courant)
4. Spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations. (SF Chronicle)
5. Spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules. (Boston Globe)
6. Spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. (Herald Tribune)
7. Spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. (Post Intelligencer)
8. Spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision is not final. (Times (reg required))
9. Spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from the government. (Business Week)
10. Spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an informal adviser. (San Diego Union)
11. Spoke on condition of anonymity because many people do not know she smokes. (New Haven Register)
12. Spoke on condition of anonymity because Mr. Sharpton wants to announce the decision to his supporters himself. (Times (reg required))
13. Spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge results. (Edmonton Sun)
14. Spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential. (Dallas News)
15. Spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. (Casper Star Tribune)
16. Spoke on condition of anonymity because a formal statement has not been released. (Billings Gazette)
17. Spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as speaking for the president. (Detroit News)
18. Spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want his identity and presence here to be known by criminals. (Brisbane’s News)

And it is easy to find more recent examples just by typing “anonymity because” into a Google news search. You’ll quickly find:

A Google spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the company’s policy.

[A] person with direct knowledge of the [Delta/Northwest combination], who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the airlines.

The public editor for the Times has commendably called for more transparency in this kind of disclosure.

But to my mind, the biggest deficiency is the failure of journalists to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate retaliation that might be visited upon an anonymous source.

The strongest rationale for granting a source anonymity is simply to protect the source from illegitimate retaliation or harassment for providing information.

For example, in one article “half a dozen tribal elders from Panjwai . . . spoke (about Taliban attacks on police posts) on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from the insurgents.” Illegitimate consequences can also be visited by employers who might retaliate against an employee whistle-blower.

But newspapers routinely grant anonymity to employees who misappropriate employer information. Often times these grants are given to sources who could be legitimately fired or disciplined for violating their fiduciary duty to their employer. The sources who steal — I mean misappropriate — employer information aren’t willing to directly disclose because they know they could be fired for the disclosure.

I’m all in favor of having a broad definition of whistle blowing. I think it is appropriate for both the law and newspaper-anonymity to protect workers who blow the whistle on corporate misdeeds.

But I don’t think that newspapers’ anonymity policies should facilitate employee malfeasance. For example, in 2006, it was reported:

N.B.A. executives — commenting on why Knicks head coach Larry Brown was really fired — were “granted anonymity because they are not authorized to comment on another team’s operations.”

Or last month:

“[P]eople briefed on the negotiations [concerning the Clear Channel buyout] were given anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deal.”

Misappropriation represents a big proportion of anonymity grants. I recently had a research assistant code just over 200 grants and found that 40 percent of anonymity grants were unjustified misappropriations (i.e. where the source was trying to avoid legitimate retaliation). In another 34 percent, the justification was unclear (for example, the employer might have allowed the employee to disclose information anonymously); and only 26 percent were clearly justified.

I, for one, would prefer not to read articles with misappropriated information. We’re all trading in a type of stolen goods.

One way to improve the situation would be for newspapers to only grant employees anonymity if the employee’s disclosure would be protected by the law’s definition of whistle blowing.

Indeed, it might even be a good idea to force newspapers that use anonymous employee sources to take on the employee’s potential liability for disclosing employer information. An employer who would have been able to sue an employee for an unauthorized disclosure could instead sue the newspaper for damages.

The newspaper could avoid liability by convincing the court that the disclosure was not in fact a misappropriation — because an employer doesn’t have a legal right to keep certain information secret. The first amendment is not offended by limiting newspapers’ ability to print misappropriated information.


Adam

I disagree with the changes proposed in this post. Newspapers have always been able to use truth, not process, as a defense against liability. This insures that the public's need to know information is upheld while giving no defense to publications that break the cardinal rule of the Society of Professional Journalists, "Seek the Truth."

Exposing news organizations to liability over actions taken by their sources puts them in a dangerous situation. Not only will sources be less likely to come forward but some papers will be less likely to print information unless they can find out how a source got information. That in itself would probably require another anonymous source or a publication would just have to take the source's word.

Mike

To finish my thought:

Napster is a perfect example of analogous acts. The Napster service enables copyright infringement to such on obvious degree that it was considered liable.

Mike

@ Noah #7:

I agree with you that the proposals are misguided. You are right that there probably will be new ways for business to abuse the legal system, however I don't think any damages that businesses demand from newspapers are necessarily inappropriate.

I don't think your distinction between "stealing" and "copying" is very meaningful, particularly when you're talking about intellectual property - or trade secrets / confidential business information. A large part of our economy depends on these soft goods and they have to be protected.

I think a business might even have a case for damages against a newspaper for disseminating trade secrets or confidential, insider information. If they could show: that the newspaper did it knowingly - if the newspaper knew that what they knew was proprietary knowledge, and if it is reasonable to think they knew it would harm the business. If the employee was under a NDA, and the newspaper knew that, maybe the paper should be liable in part. I don't know if there's any precedent for this specifically, but there's plenty of precident for holding someone liable for knowingly facilitating acts that damage another (see, Mutual Fund Scandals). And if printing it in the newspaper isn't facilitating disclosure under an NDA, I don't know what is!

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wintermute

I think it's an excellent idea, in principle. But in practice? How are you going to persuade journalists that they ought to stick to ethical sources of information? Sounds like a losing battle, to me...

Nikhil

@ 5,Coleman
"The fact that the laws stink doesn't mean that newspapers should be above the law; it means the laws should change."
Maybe I come off sounding a little anarchist here, but I think it does, at least when the law is clearly not going to change. How else?
@ James: Fox News is necessary COUNTER propaganda??? What in the world are you talking about!!???

I think we can agree that in a world in which all that newspapers did was print confidential-genuinely confidential, in the sense of having an actual impact on business, as opposed to confidential because you were forced to sign an all-encompassing NDA to that effect- information for little or no public good, your proposed policy would make sense. However, this is obviously not such a world. What most newspapers do is clearly different from giving out private citizen's social security numbers for no good reason.

www.ramblingperfectionist.wordpress.com

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Noah

I believe this is an astoundingly misguided post. Two quick reasons:

1. "Indeed, it might even be a good idea to force newspapers that use anonymous employee sources to take on the employee's potential liability for disclosing employer information."

Doing so would increase bureaucracy, enable even greater abuse of the legal system for corporate benefit, and markedly hurt incentives to report on controversial matters. Transparency and freedom of information are critical to free markets' efficacy. Occasionally they can and should be curtailed as part of an incentive scheme, but that is not a decision to take lightly (see USPTO snafu).

2. "I, for one, would prefer not to read articles with misappropriated information. We're all trading in a type of stolen goods."

First of all, it's not stolen, it's copied, as with all infinite goods. And, if you really believe that, you're one in a million (see Napster, BitTorrent, supermarket tabloids, oh, and all the newspapers you mention).

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Andrew Wheeler

I don't see any benefit to a particular newspaper for making the policy change you're advocating, and it would definitely cause harm to potential sources. And those sources would thus be much less likely to speak to any paper with such policies.

So the net result of this policy would be that whatever paper instituted it first would see a greatly reduced number of sources willing to talk to them, and a greater number of similar stories going to other papers.

If a law requiring your standards was passed, I would expect to see fewer stories with quoted sources; you may count that as a plus or a minus.

james

The problem with your proposal is it then lowers the sales of news papers. With less juicy information from illicit sources, what are these papers going to print?

Coleman

Great points in this post - although I think that the only papers with enough clout to do this and have an effect (other than losing readers) would be the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

mgh:
The fact that the laws stink doesn't mean that newspapers should be above the law; it means the laws should change. Maybe it seems naive, but the fact is that lawmakers are elected and newspaper editors are not, and there's no reason that newspapers should be granted immunity that ordinary employees of a company are not.

Brian

Your proposed policy, which would allow corporations to sue newspapers for damages, would bring the entire industry to its knees under the weight of lawsuits. It seems you value corporate interests over bringing truth to the citizenry.

This kind of misguided moralizing is disgusting. Freakonomics should stick to the empirical analysis that made it so interesting.

mgh

Your suggestion is troublesome for two reasons:

1. Misappropriated information is good, when it comes to government. Yes, secrecy is important, and yes, "loose lips" can "sink ships," but it's a necessary precondition for robust scrutiny of government that if people think something bad in government is going on, that they'd be able to tell newspapers about it.

2. Whistle-blower laws in New York in particular are incredibly poor. As I read State law, it only protects whistle-blowers whose whistle-blowing has to do with a matter of public health or safety (and not, say, corporate malfeasance or mass swindling). And Federal law in at least one area (fair labor) holds that unless one is actually contacting a government agency, there is no protection from retaliation.

So I don't think your policy is either called for or wise, particularly given the rather shoddy state of the laws int his area.

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Mike

While freedom of the press is certainly valuable enough to be cherished and praised, I don't understand how so many people are protecting the right of newspapers to publish unethically received information. Just because a business is a business doesn't make its matters the right of the public.

If I gave the NYT your social security number under the condition of anonymity, don't you think there would be something wrong with them publishing it?

What if an anonymous source in the back office at the Times gave the WSJ tomorrow's news story, word for word? You know there would be a fight about that.

Fred

The secret recipe for Coca-Cola is... Wait, you'll have to grant me anonymity first!

John

I can't recall ever seeing a Non-Disclosure Agreement that stated "All parties agree to not disclose any of the sensitive information herein, unless, of course, they are granted anonymity."

James

Actually, Orwell wrote 1984 after working at the BBC. It's the other end of the spectrum I'm worried about. I don't really like it but Fox News is necessary counter propaganda.

frankenduf

yeah, this post is naive- the claim that business needs protection from the media is laughable- big business literally owns the media, with some micro examples of public/independent news- the real worry is that we need to protect our media from business- otherwise you get fox news, which would make George Orwell's skin crawl

Mike Kriskey

Brian #15: Come on, this post is not disgusting. It's just an idea for reducing the granting of anonymity for no good reason.

When I read a story citing an anonymous source whose reason for remaining anonymous seems flimsy, I just assume the person is lying and stop reading. If that means I read fewer and fewer Times' articles, so be it--at least I've got a lot of company.

Dave

#14, thanks for rebutting the ignorance of the majority of the previous posts!

Marvin (NdP)

It is four months since the last post on this topic and it deserves more public discussion. The number of articles printing what is essentially anonymous gossip continues to skyrocket. Onely a very few could be said to be legitimate pubication of whistle-blowing information. I'm sure I'm being naive in saying this, but don't newspapers have an ethical responsibility as well as a reportorial one? Should they continue to traffic in gossip and misappropriated information under the guise of bring us the "anonymous" news?