Every day, our readers rely on us to help them connect events in Washington and around the world to their lives. This privilege rests on our accuracy and our honesty — in short, on our credibility. That demands that we reveal as much as we possibly can about our sources of information, granting anonymity grudgingly and only when there is no alternative means to obtain essential information.
McClatchy's Washington bureau will use information from confidential sources when it's the only way to bring an important story to readers. We'll do so as a last resort and under the following rules:
1. The information is reliable, newsworthy and otherwise not available.
2. The source of the information is trustworthy and has access to reliable information on the subject in question.
3. The information is verified, which requires in almost every case having at least two sources and confirming that they are independent of each other.
4. The identity of the source must be protected because he/she might be imperiled physically or legally or his/her livelihood might be endangered.
5. The source is providing information, not leveling an accusation, stating opinion or conjecture, or simply adding color to a story.
6. The highest-ranking editor in the bureau or his/her designee knows the identity of the source and approves publication of the information. The editor is then bound to maintain the same confidentiality as the reporter.
We will not report anonymous personal or partisan attacks. We will not report speculation or opinion offered under the condition of confidentiality. We will not grant anonymity for non-vital comments or information. We will not promise to refrain from further reporting to seek comment or to verify the information. We will not mislead readers about anonymous sources, such as making them plural when only one source is quoted or saying that someone refused to comment when that person was an anonymous source.
We always prefer on the record sources because they allow readers to make their own judgments about the reliability of the information. But we recognize, and history shows, that the public, on-the-record version of events given by governments, corporations and other institutions is often not the whole story, or even the principal one.
Corruption, secretiveness and policy disputes at the highest levels might remain hidden if sources are denied confidentiality. These criteria seek to define those circumstances in which we would be unable to give the public vital information unless we agreed not to name a source.
The use of information granted on the condition of confidentiality should follow a considered decision-making process that begins the moment a reporter approaches a source and continues through the editing process.
Anonymity should not be assumed or granted automatically. It should be the result of vigorous negotiation with the source. If the source insists on confidentiality, reporters should review the information and the quotes with the source at the end of the interview and seek to get as much as possible on the record.
Supervising editors should be made aware as soon as possible that a story relies on unnamed sources. The highest-ranking editor in the bureau must approve the use of such information.
We must identify sources as fully as possible. A source's partisan, institutional or policy allegiance should be made clear. The article should explain the reasons for granting anonymity, the motives of the source and a description of why the source is considered authoritative (e.g., an "administration official who has participated in the discussions and disagrees with the policy" or "a senior aide to a Republican lawmaker at odds with his party leadership.")
Confidential sources must have direct knowledge of the information. Because confidential sources cannot be named — which prevents them from being held personally accountable for their information — at least two independent sources are necessary except in rare cases, such as when a source has unique first-hand knowledge and authority.
If the information is obvious, accepted fact, or simply common sense, there should be no need to attribute, and we can report it as fact.
We will always voice objection to "background" briefings to large groups of reporters. These are commonplace at the White House and State Department and in presidential campaigns. While they're often unavoidable, we will continue to voice our objections to them and seek to have them placed on the record. If our objections are ignored, reporters should weigh the news value of the briefing before deciding whether to participate.
Spokesmen for agencies, organizations, political groups or for individuals should not be granted anonymity if they are speaking for their employers. The only exception would be if the spokesman were providing information that, if his identity were known, would imperil his livelihood or physical well-being or that of his boss.
It is imperative that we understand the rules and the terminology that we use to enter into attribution agreements with sources.
To that end, here are terms of attribution:
On the record: The information can be used freely and the source identified fully.
Backgrounder/not for attribution: Both terms are used interchangeably. It means the source cannot be identified by name.
Deep background: The source cannot be identified at all but the information can be reported on the reporter's own authority.
Guidance: The source cannot be identified and the information can be used only to inform further reporting.
Off the record: The information is not usable. Be aware of what the terms mean so that the source is not preventing you from further reporting. Make sure the source is not using "off the record" to mean "background" or "not for attribution."