I can count on this happening at least once a month: after I write a story that includes a quote from a company’s publicist, I get a call or an e-mail from said PR rep asking that I take her or his name out of the piece.
The reason for that request is almost always some variation of “It’s supposed to be the company speaking, not me.” And every time, I have to give the same response: I didn’t know that and you certainly didn’t ask for anonymity before replying to my questions, so the name stays.
There’s honesty. Corporations, contrary to occasional belief, are not people. They have no mouths with which to speak. Instead, human beings–paid to speak for the companies involved–told me something, and their identities are as relevant as those of anybody else quoted in the piece.
Accountability matters too. I have had PR reps pass on incorrect information. The most effective way to hold them responsible is to attach their names to their words. Identifying them also contributes to reproducibility–making it easier for other reporters to prove or disprove what I found.
Finally, taking correct information out of a story sets a lousy precedent for post-publication editing.
I think anonymous quotes are overused in stories, especially political coverage, but I’m not categorically opposed to them. If you tell me upfront that your boss, employer or client doesn’t want you named, I can honor that respect–after I try persuading you otherwise, especially if the information at stake is not widely known. (The weird part is when this negotiation involves a statement that makes the publicist’s client look good.)
But if you don’t offer any such indication, my default setting as a journalist is to use your name. How should I know otherwise? I am not a mind reader–and any clairvoyancy skills that I do possess must be reserved for dealing with my editors.
People who aren’t paid to speak for their employer, especially those who tell me things that their employer doesn’t want shared, are a different case. I know, because I helped one source lose his job when I didn’t conceal his identity carefully enough in a post I wrote about the online reemergence of an amusing mid-’90s clip from NBC’s Today Show.
That was one of the lowest moments of my time at the Post. I don’t need to repeat that experience. If you’re telling me something that puts your job at risk, I will keep your name and any other identifying details out of the story. But if you’re telling me something because that’s your job, your name belongs in it.