Of all the decisions any newsroom faces in a given day, none may be dicier than the use of anonymous sources in the reporting of a story.
And, on the rare occasion when a reporter might ask about attributing quotes or information anonymously, the first answer is almost a basic one: Don't.
There are many reasons for that — primarily that anonymous comments in a news story almost always raises some credibility red flags in the eyes of readers. And that's a concern I and other editors take very seriously.
Yet, just this week, we had two cases in which Times stories included anonymous comments, or information based on anonymous sources.
The biggest was the Wednesday story by Stephanie Bergman reporting that Manchester officials are investigating whether former interim Harbormaster Gabe Mongiello wrongly deleted documents such as the town's mooring list and other records. The other was in the reporting the apparent suicide of Frederick Lyman, the former city man who was out on bail after being indicted in a case of alleged child molestation.
Now, why would your community's newspaper do that?
Usually, when one or more sources offers information, but he or she will not say it for attribution or on the record, a reporter or editor can pursue the information and verify it with other officials. But, in the Manchester case, discussion of the harbormaster probe was confined to executive session because it was deemed a personnel matter. That means the issues were being outlined behind closed doors.
The rules of executive session mean that no official could legally outline the investigation. Yet we believed strongly that such a probe was indeed something Manchester residents needed to know, and we knew the information was rock solid. Indeed, Stephanie was able to reach Mongiello and get his side of the story. Yet none of it would have seen the light of day if we hadn't used the initial, specific and thorough information Stephanie had received, with the demand that it be used only in anonymity.
Was that the ideal way to break the story? No. But should we have held back the story, since no one on the town's side would go on record with the information?
Not in my book. Anonymous sources and quotes should be last resorts — and we treat them as such. But, as long as the information is verified and correct, the fact that it's anonymous shouldn't keep you from finding out news of your communities that we're committed to bringing to you.
As always, let me know what you think.
Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you'd like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, ext. 3438, or email@example.com.