Using Anonymous Quotes
06/23/2009 - 00:00
Gary Rosenblatt

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009


Here is a timely question from a reader:

Dear Mr. Rosenblatt,

Whether you agree with him or not about The Jewish Week’s articles he cited, Marvin Schick does raise a fair question about the use of anonymous sources. Could you articulate what is the Jewish Week’s policy regarding the use of anonymous sources in the stories that you publish. And, to his point, what horrible retribution would have happened to the anonymous sources that were quoted had you published their names?

Sincerely,

Nathan Vogel

My response:

Mr. Vogel, referring to Marvin Schick’s paid-for column in the June 19 issue that strongly criticized a Jewish Week article the previous week, asks a reasonable question. First, a little background:

The June 12 Jewish Week news story focused on allegations that Rabbi Dovid Cohen, a prominent posek (halachic decisor) in the charedi community, said publicly, at a Shabbat lecture, that tax evasion is permissible under Jewish law as long as one doesn’t get caught, according to people in attendance.
Rabbi Cohen later denied that he made the statement. But according to at least seven people who were in the audience and who wrote letters attesting to what they heard, he did made the statement — and added that he would deny it if ever asked, noting that since it was Shabbat, no one was recording or taking notes on his remarks.

At the request of those involved, The Jewish Week agreed not to divulge their identities.

I once wrote a column on the subject of anonymous sources, noting our frustration in getting some people to speak on the record, i.e. allowing themselves to be quoted by name.

Every newspaper prefers fully identifying those who are interviewed for a story because it gives the story that much more credibility, especially if the person has an expertise in the area he is discussing.

For example, it is far more convincing to say that John Smith, the director of accounting at the Wharton School of finance, says “most Americans can’t add,” than to say “one accounting expert says `most Americans can’t add.’”

But in the real world of journalism, virtually every publication I know of quotes people without attribution at times, often giving a reason for the person asking that his or her name not be cited. Sometimes it’s a matter of one’s personal safety; more often it is a whistleblower afraid of losing his or her job or unwilling to risk professional, political or social repercussions.

The main criterion is a belief that the information you are being given is accurate.

In the case at hand, we felt the information we had been provided by the sources who requested anonymity was solid. We read the letters they had written affirming that they had heard Rabbi Cohen make the disputed remarks. In addition, we spoke to an official of the Rabbinical Council of America, where the letters had been sent, attesting to the accuracy of information we had been given. And we were convinced that the letter-writers were under strong social pressure, and in some instances rabbinic pressure, not to go public with their statements.

That’s a long answer to a short question, but in essence, if we believe that anonymous sources are credible and offer the only practical way to get important information out, we make use of that information.

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