In today's New York Times, James Barron's article about renovations to the Port Authority Bus Terminal had an interesting passage, as Helen Kennedy pointed out on Twitter:
Best reason to go off the record. pic.twitter.com/qi68vD8pxj— Helen Kennedy (@HelenKennedy) February 25, 2015
Barron's tongue is firmly in cheek here, but he's abiding by a real Times policy that anonymity shouldn't be given without telling readers why. (He's not really following the stylebook guideline that anonymity should be a "last resort," but I think we can forgive him in this case.)
Anonymous sourcing can frequently be an extremely useful and informative tool for reporters and readers. "We cannot bring readers the information they want and need to know without sometimes protecting sources who risk reprisals, firing, legal action or, in some parts of the world, their lives when they confide in us," then-Times executive editor Bill Keller said in 2008.
But, of course, anonymous sources can also be misused — as they were in the paper's Jayson Blair fabrication scandal and in some of its reporting in the lead-up to the Iraq war. So Keller adopted the policy requiring justifications for anonymity in 2005, shortly after these incidents.
The policy has led to some strange and amusing anonymity excuses being printed in the paper. The Washington Post's Paul Farhi pointed out that seven Times articles granted anonymity simply "because of the delicacy of the situation" — including "one about a woman who fell off a balcony."
And New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has repeatedly criticized the paper for still granting anonymity too freely, with what she calls "ever-more inventive" justifications. These include a past Oscar nominee speaking anonymously "because she was afraid of looking bad" and a parent of a Middlebury sophomore speaking anonymously "to avoid embarrassing her daughter." These explanations, like Barron's, get points for honesty, at least.