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Off the record, newspapers have a problem

Newsweek's botched story and other recent miscues raise concern about media's use of anonymous sources.

As the American news industry continues to face a crisis of credibility, critics have found few greater targets than the media's use of anonymous sources.

Now the issue is being revived in the wake of the item in Newsweek that set off riots in Afghanistan. The story relied on an unnamed source.

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Since the days of the penny press, anonymous sources have been a way for reporters to get information that they presumably couldn't get otherwise. But even many in the industry admit the practice can be abused - and may, at the very least, be overused today.

Even The New York Times story last Wednesday on the aftermath of the Newsweek piece used two unnamed sources - an "outside Bush adviser" and an "administration official."

"If you play the anonymous source game, sooner or later you'll get burned," says Tim Porter, a Mill Valley, Calif., newspaper consultant. "I don't know how many more times the American press is going to put its hand on that stove before they say, 'It's hot, don't touch it.' "

It's true that unnamed sources - including the ubiquitous "senior administration official" and "highly placed source" - continue to fill the pages of major American newspapers despite years of hand- wringing over their presence. But some editors and media watchers see signs of change and expect the Newsweek flap - in which the magazine infuriated Muslims by reporting that guards at Guantánamo Bay flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet - to lead to more restrictions on the use of unnamed sources.

"Everybody who's in the business and is drawing breath has realized it's gotten out of hand," says Brian Duffy, editor of U.S. News & World Report, one of several magazines and newspapers that have reevaluated their policies on sources.

Newsweek itself is one that has been chastened. In its most recent edition, the magazine's chairman and editor in chief, Richard Smith, announced plans for closer policing of anonymous sourcing after the global furor over the Koran story. In the future, two of the magazine's top editors will be assigned sole responsibility for approving the use of anonymous sources, and Newsweek will stop using the phrase "sources said" to attribute information in copy.

USA Today, the nation's most widely circulated newspaper and a news-gathering partner of The Christian Science Monitor, has lowered the number of unnamed sources by an estimated 75 percent over the past year, says editor Kenneth Paulson. "We refuse to use them as a crutch," he says. "They're not to be used for rumor and innuendo."

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Meanwhile, a variety of publications have become more circumspect about making sure that high-ranking editors approve the use of unnamed sources and know their identities. Many of the changes are in response to journalism's ongoing crisis of credibility, worsened in 2003 by the Jayson Blair scandal. Mr. Blair, a New York Times reporter, exposed as a plagiarist and fabricator, failed to tell his bosses the names of anonymous sources in major stories.

While no large newspapers appear to have banned anonymous sources entirely, several are taking more pains to explain to readers why sources go without names. The New York Times story about the Newsweek aftermath, for example, explained that an "administration official" who commented about interagency sniping didn't want to be named because of his "internal criticism." And an "outside Bush adviser" didn't want "to be identified as talking about possible motives of the White House."

To critics, those types of descriptions shed little light. Christopher Hanson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, jokes that newspapers should take a step toward clarity by using icons to identify the motivations of sources - a balloon for a "trial balloon," a knife for a case of backstabbing, and a blowfish for a person trying to puff up the reputation of his boss.

In reality, Mr. Hanson argues, there are rarely good reasons to rely on an anonymous source. "If I were able to impose a policy, I'd only use them if it's an issue of absolute vital importance to the public and there's no other way to get the information."

Anonymous sources, of course, have an honored place in the history of journalism. The source code-named Deep Throat guided two Washington Post reporters through the thicket of Watergate. More recently, anonymous sources played a major role in the reporting of the Abu Ghraib scandal. "There are times when the use of anonymous sources is critical to fulfilling our watchdog role under the Constitution," says USA Today's Mr. Paulson. "There are times when whistle-blowers and those who have evidence of crimes or injustice can't go public."

With an eye on the exposés of the past, some fear anonymous sources will become endangered species, perhaps preventing exposure of the next Watergate. "When reporters use unidentified sources, they make the professional decision about whether to go ahead and use the information they provide," says Bill Straub, a 30-year reporting veteran and White House correspondent for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain. "It's better to advance a story based on information you feel good about than to write an article that doesn't tell the full story."