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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 22, 2013. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 22, 2013. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Public editor: Coming clean on anonymous sources Add to ...

Political reporters need to have off-the-record conversations with their sources on a daily basis. They try to find out what is happening in cabinet meetings, in caucus meetings, the details of pending legislation, and what private discussions are behind the public statements.

Still, care must be taken so that off-the-record comments and guarantees of anonymity are not used unfairly to attack opponents. The Globe and Mail’s guidelines on anonymity were called into question by a reader who wondered why a Saturday story on Justin Trudeau said this: “Some Liberals say privately that Mr. Trudeau must adapt his speaking style to his new position and adopt a ‘more disciplined’ approach now that he is being asked to comment more often. Some in the Trudeau camp believe he can sometimes ‘say the right things, but in the wrong way,’” one Liberal said. The reader said that “without being able to evaluate the source, how can the reader assess whether The Globe and Mail is simply making a trivial comment appear portentous?”

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It is an excellent question and I forwarded the policy to the reader. It says in part: “In an ideal world, there would be no anonymous quotes. But sometimes an important story cannot be obtained without protecting a source who risks retribution if identified. Reporters should strive to minimize the use of unattributed quotes, keeping in mind that the justification for omitting attribution is to get the fullest story possible, not to let people dodge accountability or take anonymous potshots. … Quotes with names attached carry more weight, lend credibility to the paper as a whole and increase public trust in the product. Excessive use of anonymous quotes raises doubts in the public’s mind about our overall accuracy and credibility. ... The use of anonymous sources should be the last resort and subject to the following conditions: (1) They convey important information that cannot be obtained for attribution elsewhere; (2) They cannot be used to voice opinions or make ad hominem attacks; (3) We must be diligent in describing sources as fully as possible. That includes: how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information, and why we agreed to grant them anonymity.”

Ryan MacDonald, The Globe’s political editor, said direct quotes should not have been used. “We should have exercised more discipline as to why granting anonymity or more adequately paraphrased, but otherwise I support the reporter’s characterization in the paragraph in question. There is a need to understand how Liberal MPs and those on Trudeau’s team feel about how he is delivering his message in these early days.”

It is important to let the public know what the Liberals are saying about their new leader, but the reader’s concern was a good reminder that reporters should press their sources to give as much description as they can: whether they are Liberal staffers or MPs for example and to avoid giving too much weight to those off-the-record observations by Liberals.

If you want to comment, please do so below. Or if you want to send me a note on this or any subject, please send me an e-mail at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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