Balancing candor and confidentiality

Careful readers like Dr. Hugo Quinny Cheng of the University of California, San Francisco noticed an incongruity in a recent Stars and Stripes news account of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s travails.

“While most of the quotes in the article could be found on other news sources, the author Jeff Schogol also quotes several unnamed soldiers and officers at two bases in Afghanistan, who expressed dissatisfaction or outright contempt for the general,” Cheng wrote to me. “Officers in the company command headquarters are described as joking and cheering about the news of the general’s carpeting and going out to smoke a cigar to celebrate it.”

“The article was written/filed from Washington, and there is no mention of having an embedded reporter in Afghanistan. Thus, I was puzzled by how this eye-witness level of reporting was possible,” Cheng’s letter continued. “I do not accuse Mr. Schogol of fabricating these quotes or seemingly first-hand descriptions, but the article does not does not make it clear how they were obtained.”

Cheng is right to ask how eyewitness accounts of words and actions in Afghanistan appeared without attribution or explanation in a breaking-news article written from Washington by a Pentagon-based reporter.

I am told that the material was gathered and filed by Stars and Stripes staffers in Afghanistan. That fact was omitted from the article out of an extended concern that the frankness of some of the remarks might result in punitive repercussions for soldiers who had spoken on condition of anonymity.

Editors reasoned that mentioning the staffers or identifying the soldiers who had not been promised anonymity might in some way point to the soldiers who had. In the end, the decision — made under deadline pressure — was to simply not provide any information about any of the staffers or the soldiers who were quoted, or even how they came to be quoted, to protect the identities of those who had been promised confidentiality.

This was a well-intentioned decision, commendable in motive, if not wholly in execution.

Readers like Cheng have a right to know, to the greatest extent possible, who is speaking in news articles and how certain information was obtained.

News organizations like Stars and Stripes typically have a policy that anonymous sources be used only to provide crucial information that cannot be obtained or presented in any other way.

Those same policies typically warn against letting sources hide behind a shield of anonymity to snipe at enemies or express opinions rather than facts. They also go to some lengths to try to explain to readers why a source is being granted a shield of anonymity (fear of reprisal or lack of authorization to speak on a subject, etc.) or how information was obtained (documents provided by a critic of a policy, etc.).

In the article here, the quotes were largely opinion, so at first glance they might seem outside the purview of a typical anonymous-source policy. But in this instance, I believe the opinions of the soldiers were themselves intrinsically informative — conveying a sense of discontent in the ranks with certain policies at the top of the command — and so were quite appropriate here, advancing reader understanding and knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan.

I also believe the paper was correct to have promised anonymity to those soldiers who had spoken only on condition of it, for obvious reasons.

But without knowing all the particulars, I cannot say for sure whether the decision in this case to bestow anonymity on soldiers elsewhere who had not spoken on that condition was proper, despite the laudable motives.

This is tricky turf. In my own experience reporting in Central America during the 1980s, I did on occasion provide some measure of anonymity (using only first names, for example) to some sources who did not specifically request it, on the grounds that they were people who were inexperienced in dealing with journalists and who faced the possibility of physical danger for having spoken with me or having expressed the views they did.

So while I am inclined in principle to set the bar high for the use of anonymous sources, I understand the practical dilemma Stars and Stripes staffers felt in this instance, and defer to and even hail them for choosing to err on the side of caution.

I do think, however, that with the luxury of the time I have had to think all this through, the editors’ laudable and legitimate concerns for source protection might have been more fully balanced against the sensibilities of sharp-eyed and inquisitive readers like Cheng.

In that spirit, I offer some devices for future consideration, imperfect as they may themselves be:

* adding a few words in the body of the article indicating that soldiers were interviewed by Stars and Stripes in Afghanistan.

* stating in the article, as soon as appropriate, that soldiers interviewed in Afghanistan spoke on condition of — or were provided with — anonymity to guard against possible reprisal. (Anonymity is granted to a source; it cannot be imposed by a source.)

* adding a brief line at the end of the article that Stars and Stripes staffers in Afghanistan had contributed to it. (The New York Times, for example, uses such vague tag lines if contributors are in precarious environments: “An Iraqi employee of the New York Times contributed reporting from Kirkuk.”)

* omitting descriptive details about speakers and their environments, thereby avoiding the question of how a reporter in Washington writing on deadline came to describe, firsthand, mannerisms and actions that took place in Afghanistan that same day.

Opinion polls show public faith in journalists is low, thanks in part to some notable scandals and blunders and to the rise of the Internet, which has empowered audiences to act as fact-checkers.

We need to do all we can to assure them that we can be trusted to give them accurate, comprehensive facts. One way to accomplish that is to be as upfront as possible with our readers about how and where we come by our information while, when necessary, safeguarding the people who provide it to us.

This column was originally published in Stars and Stripes on June 30, 2010.

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