GUIDELINES FOR USING UNNAMED SOURCES
The use of unnamed sources erodes our credibility and should be avoided. When there is no other way to obtain information that is crucial to the reader’s understanding of the story, these guidelines apply:
- The identity of an unnamed source must be shared with and approved by a managing editor prior to publication. The managing editor must be confident that the information presented to the reader is accurate, not just that someone said it. This usually will require confirmation from a second source or from documents. When a single confidential source is cited without further support in the story, the editor must be confident that information presented is based on first-hand knowledge and is authoritative.
- The same principles apply to the use of confidential documents. It is not enough to know and sign off on the identity of the source of the documents. The managing editor must be satisfied that the documents are authentic and trustworthy and the chain of custody of the documents can be traced to their originators.
- Anonymous sources must be cited only as a last resort. This applies not just to direct quotes but to the use of anonymous sources generally. Before accepting their use for publication, an editor must be confident that there is no better way to present the information and that the information is important enough to justify the broader cost in reader trust. This is not to be taken lightly.
- Anonymous sources may only be used to report facts. Anonymous accusations and speculation are not acceptable.
- Sources should understand that if information is attributed to them anonymously in the newspaper, an editor will know their identity. They should also understand they may be identified if their information proves to be false or unfounded.
- Reporters may not enter into agreements with sources that specify when information will be used in USA TODAY or under what circumstances without the direct participation of a managing editor. This includes committing to a specific publication date, location in the newspaper or any other understanding that limits USA TODAY’S independent news judgment.
- Extreme care should be taken not to identify unnamed sources in a way that exposes their identity. But unnamed sources should be described as precisely as possible. Additionally, reporters and editors should explain why the source could not be identified and if possible, add any information that establishes the credibility of a source on the subject matter in question.
- The number of sources or their standing must never be exaggerated.
- Sources should be pushed to accept the lowest possible level of confidentiality. The agreed-upon level of confidentiality should be understood by both parties.
- Sources cited in wire reports or by other media should be used only when absolutely necessary. When using sources from another media, they should be attributed to the appropriate organization, citing its description of the source.
BEST PRACTICES AT VIDOSTREAM
We at USA TODAY recognize our roles in safeguarding readers’ trust and the values and responsibilities of our profession. The following guidelines help us maintain that trust. These are recommended practices for editorial staffers and are not the last word on these issues. As a result, these guidelines cannot establish standards of conduct for every situation. However, violations are considered serious actions and could lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.
USA TODAY staff members do nothing dishonest or illegal to obtain or alter content. We do not use the words, photos or illustrations of another person or publication without attribution. We do not fabricate quotes, sources or information and then represent them as fact. We do not alter photographs beyond minimal adjustments of color or stage news photographs.
Some work situations and outside activities can cause real or perceived conflicts of interest. The Gannett Ethics Policy covers conflicts related to stocks and privileged information. Reporters and editors should not invest in companies or funds they regularly cover. Exceptions should be discussed with a supervisor.
In general, we pay our own way. We accept free tickets only when special seating is set aside for events we are covering. We pay for meals with sources or people in the news with a few common sense exceptions. We accept only nominal gifts of $25 or less; larger gifts are graciously returned or donated to charity. As a general rule, if you really want it, you should send it back.
We work first for USA TODAY and at all times respect and protect its reputation. Outside activities, paid or unpaid, must not endanger our journalistic independence, infringe on work obligations nor assist competitors. In all cases, we do not accept honoraria for any activity that results from our affiliation with USA TODAY nor do we accept payment from anyone or any organization that we might cover or make news judgments about. Morelines follow specific guide:
- Freelance. Staffers need written prior approval to write books and articles, graphics, or other content for other publications regardless of the subject matter. USA TODAY retains the first right of refusal of any freelance idea by staff members.
- Speaking engagements/media appearances: Opportunities to represent USA TODAY in public appearances or other media are governed by the rule that we remain as neutral and objective during an outside appearance or interview as we do when creating content. All appearances on TV, even those secured through USA TODAY LIVE, must be approved by a manager. Staffers are encouraged to speak only on topics they cover and should speak about information they have gleaned from reporting, not share opinion.
- Appearances on TV and radio programs that showcase the media and add to the newspaper’s reputation are considered outside employment for which payment can be accepted with the written approval of a supervisor.
Speaking to students, journalists or other media professionals is also encouraged, but any honoraria received should be donated to a charity of choice. We generally can accept reasonable reimbursement for travel expenses for speeches to approved organizations.
- Resale of work: All work produced by staff members for use in USA TODAY or while on assignment are the property of the company and may not be sold or reproduced without the written approval of the newspaper.
- Contests: We limit our entry and our judging of contests to those that are sponsored by journalism organizations or institutions recognizing journalistic excellence. We vote in polls related to content areas only after gaining the approval of a supervisor.
- Blogging: Personal opinions that could cause readers to question the credibility of the newspaper should not be expressed on the Web. The perceived cloak of anonymity associated with usernames can be easily pierced. Information posted on the Web under any name can be traced to its originator.
- Community activity: Even in our private lives, we refrain from participating in activities that could compromise our integrity or damage our credibility. Staff should not openly support political campaigns or causes through the display of bumper stickers, signs, pins or donations. Personal opinions about social issues should remain personal.
In all cases of potential conflicts, when in doubt, ask.
Our main goal when creating content is to tell the truth as accurately and fairly as possible. The following guidelines can help us, but decisions that jeopardize our credibility should not be made in a vacuum. Supervisors should be consulted whenever questions arise.
Accuracy guidelines and procedures for making clarifications and corrections are attached. Random, regular questionnaires are sent to sources identified in stories to assess accuracy and are shared with appropriate staffers.
Readers have a right to know where the information in the newspaper comes from. The use of information and quotes obtained from unnamed sources can erode the confidence of readers and endanger the credibility of the newspaper. For that reason we use unnamed sources sparingly. The complete policy for the use of information obtained from sources is attached to this document.
Readers have a right to know the origin of information in each story, photo and graphic. It is best to attribute within the body of the story all facts and information from the wires and other media not confirmed by a second source. We do not attribute events we witness, information considered common knowledge or information confirmed by multiple sources.
In general, we state the origin of information gleaned from a document or e-mail but explain that reporting was done by telephone only when it helps the reader better understand the content or logistics of the interview.
Bylines, datelines and taglines
Datelines help us give readers the most accurate accounting of where information for a story was gathered. Bylines and taglines explain who wrote the story or contributed to it. We use datelines on single byline stories only if the reporter was at the location cited in the dateline. We do not use a dateline if someone credited only in the tagline was there. For stories with multiple bylines, at least one person cited in the byline must be on site for the dateline to be used. At the end of the story, the location and roles of all reporters should be stated. We do not use datelines without substantial contributions from a reporter at the scene.
Quote marks tell the reader that the words of the speaker will follow. We do not alter quotes in any way except to mark with ellipses parts not used and to correct grammar mistakes, slang or dialect for clarity.
The USA TODAY stylebook contains a section on writing without bias. It offers guidelines on preventing inadvertent slurs, stereotypes or misrepresentations regarding any individual or group.
Readers must trust us to present photos honestly. We use photo illustrations sparingly and in such ways that do not confuse or deceive the reader. We explain through clear captions and/or credit lines when two or more images are combined and try never to merge two people into a single image so it implies they were photographed together. All photo illustrations are approved by the Managing Editor for Photo and Graphics. In his absence, a DME for Graphics & Photo, and or the Executive Editor will approve.
Everyone who creates or edits content for USA TODAY is subject to these content best practices.
A protocol for addressing problems
These best practices have been established to remind us of our responsibilities to the newspaper and our profession. We are mindful that our actions not only reflect on us personally, but on the newspaper and journalism as well. We hold ourselves accountable and may find ourselves in the awkward position of questioning the conduct of colleagues as well. Concerns about breaches of these guidelines should be brought to the Editor, Executive Editor or the department Managing Editor who will deal with each situation confidentially.
Last modified July 2017