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Naming names

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 13:58 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
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Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

Since Hindustan Times came to Mumbai in July 2005, from time to time readers have told us — in letters, informal discussions and more structured feedback sessions — that they were irked that we did not have a story or bit of information that another newspaper did. It is true that sometimes we just do not get the detail. But often, our senior editors consciously decide not to publish a story or include information because we cannot attribute it to a named source.

Source of the problem: At Hindustan Times, we discourage reporters from using unnamed sources in their stories, and are even more discriminating about carrying stories based entirely on unnamed sources.

Because of this, we are sometimes forced to hold back stories until someone will go on record, or if this never happens, sacrifice the story altogether.

We feel people might be tempted to exaggerate, if not make up things, if they can remain anonymous. In this high-pressure business, reporters might also stray if there is a carte blanche to use unnamed sources.

Readers, too, might turn around and question the veracity of stories with no named sources.

At the same time, we recognise that there are advantages to using unnamed sources. After all, if people are sure they will not be identified, they might reveal information they would otherwise fear to share. It is obviously a complex issue, and one on which we are far from dogmatic. We do make compromises, but only ethically satisfactory ones.

Dilemmas: Over the past week—a fairly typical one—we had to take a call numerous times on stories involving unnamed sources.

In one case, the employees of Jet Airways who had been laid off and had congregated near the airport first revealed their names quite freely to our reporter.

But as the day wore on, some of them got cold feet, and the de facto spokesman asked our reporter not to use the names. He feared that might prejudice potential employers.

Obviously, here we did not sacrifice the story but did it without naming anyone, albeit with a note at the end explaining why we were forced to do so.

In another case, the owner of a mall freely told our reporter on the record that sales were falling and two shops had closed down.

Later that day, he called and said he did not want any of the information to be used.

Here, we decided that since he knew he was talking to HT, we would use the information but not name him, so that he did not get into trouble with his partners. And we told him that was what we would be doing.

We do not claim we always make the right choice, but we hope our hit rate is high. We would be delighted to hear your views.