There are varied reasons we grant confidentiality to sources. (Courtesy photo)

How our publications decide to quote — and protect — unnamed sources

Sometimes we assume our readers know where we draw the line in acquiring information for a story.

Sometimes we assume our readers know where we draw the line in acquiring information for a story, and that they understand how we decide to use an unnamed source.

These issues were among those highlighted this past week after San Francisco police and the FBI raided the home and office of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody and seized more than 100 items as part of an investigation into the leak of a police report following the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

The raid surprised journalists because under the California Shield Law, they are supposed to be protected from being forced to reveal sources when the gathering of that information is done by a reporter for news gathering.

As the fallout of this raid plays out over the next few weeks and months, it seems an opportune time to explain how the reporters and editors at the Examiner and SF Weekly decide when to use sources who are not named, and why we protect them.

First of all, we try every means possible to get sources “on the record” as we call it. The vast majority of our reporting involves named sources because we believe that people should be held accountable for what they say. Readers cannot hold people accountable, nor evaluate if the person knows what he or she is talking about without knowing who they are.

We only use unnamed sources after we have exhausted other means and when this is the only way to get the information that we determine is in the public interest to know. In many cases, a source may talk with a reporter several times before anything is published. Then, as the reporter builds trust with the source, he or she may allow the reporter to quote some or all of the information using the person’s name. Or, it may be decided that the source will remain unnamed.

There are varied reasons we grant this confidentiality, but the most common one is that the source does not want to be named for fear of losing a job or being harmed in other ways. Blowing the whistle on a supervisor, for example, can put an employee at risk. The most famous anonymous source was “Deep Throat,” the pseudonym given to the Washington insider who leaked secret information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigated the Watergate scandal. The revelations eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Our investigative work has not brought down presidents, but it has led to the resignations of San Francisco officials, and therefore, we better make sure that we get it right. We set a high bar for deciding whether to use the information, and evaluating its accuracy. One of my journalism professors used to say that the term “reliable source” was redundant. No journalist would use a source unless that person is reliable, he used to say. Are they in a position to have acquired the information they say they have? Can the reporter see documents to confirm the information? Who else can corroborate the story? These are among the questions we seek answers to before deciding to publish. And, in our news organization, the question of using an unnamed source always rises to an editor, and in some cases to myself.

In my first couple weeks as the editor-in-chief here, I had to advise one of our reporters to hold off on publishing a story because I thought the reporter had not gathered enough information to report what was a bombshell revelation. We could not confirm the information, and it lacked detail to show how serious the accusation was. It was a difficult decision because it was an important story we had a responsibility to report, and we did not want other media to have the scoop before we did. However, if we got it wrong, we could have ruined someone’s career.

In the end, the wait paid off. We got it right.

Using anonymous sources comes with the responsibility of protecting them, a long-honored tradition among journalists which we take very seriously. We do not reveal the identities of unnamed sources. And, that often means not identifying them even to colleagues within the newsroom. An editor may seek more details from a reporter to verify that the source is reliable. Regardless, if the name is shared with the editor, it remains confidential between the reporter and the editor.

We don’t always get it right, of course, and some nights we toss and turn hoping we made a reasonable choice.

However, we make the best decisions we can with the information we have at hand, often on deadline in the fast-paced rhythm of this field we call journalism.

Do you have questions or comments about how we do what we do? Email me at askeditor@sfmediaco.com

As always, thanks for reading.

Deborah Petersen is the editor- in-chief of San Francisco Media Company which publishes The Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen.

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