Anonymous Sources

By Shepard, Alicia C. | American Journalism Review, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Anonymous Sources


Shepard, Alicia C., American Journalism Review


A flurry of inaccurate stories about O.J. Simpson based on unnamed sources has rekindled the debate over their use. Detractors say they hurt the media's credibility: Defenders say without them important stories would never be told.

Ohio University Journalism Professor Hugh Culberstson knew he had a hot topic. Editors around the country were agonizing over the use of anonymous sources, fearing they were relying on them too heavily, damaging the press' credibility in the process. Culbertson surveyed more than 200 editors.

The results: Most said competition forced them to use unnamed sources, even though 81 percent considered them inherently less believable. One-third were "unhappy to a substantial degree" with how anonymous sources were handled at their own newspapers, and editors estimated that more than half would go on the record if reporters pushed harder. "They seemed to regard unnamed attribution as a crutch for lazy reporters," Culbertson says.

That was in 1979. It's likely the findings would be similar today. The issue of anonymous sources always makes editors uncomfortable. They debate their use endlessly. But there's no indication nameless officials are going away

"Certain stories keep bringing this issue to the fore," says Culbertson. "There was Watergate's Deep Throat in 1973, Janet Cooke [who fabricated a story that cited anonymous sources! around 1980 ... and now O.J. Simpson."

Concern over the use of anonymous or confidential sources is indeed back. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito angrily threatened to close Simpson's murder trial to television cameras in the wake of one controversial report. In late September, KNBC-TV reporter Tracie Savage told viewers that DNA tests showed a match between blood on a sock found in Simpson's bedroom and his former wife's blood. The link was attributed to a source who refused to be named.

Ito called the report "outrageous" and "irresponsible." KNBC first responded by sticking to its story, but days later admitted the information may not have been completely correct. This was just the latest in a series of high-profile inaccurate stories based on anonymous sources in the Simpson coverage (see "Offside on O.J.," page 21).

Pressure to be first on the Simpson case is intense. And with few knowledgeable sources speaking on the record, journalists feel compelled rely on those willing to talk on a not-for-attribution basis.

"Every time you have a story like O.J. Simpson or Tonya Harding which relies so heavily on sources, we are under increasing pressure to put names in the attribution," says Darrell Christian, the Associated Press' managing editor. "There's a legitimate concern on the part of newspapers that they want their readers to believe what they're writing. The best way to do that is to put names with the facts."

Some would like the Simpson experience to mark the end of the unnamed sources era. "My hope is that the O.J. story win be to anonymous sources what the 'Jimmy's World' story [by Janet Cooke! ... was to deception, fictional and composite characters," says Tom Brislin, who teaches journalism at the University of Hawaii and administers the Carol Burnett Fund for Responsible Journalism. If Brislin has his way, in 10 years "well look back ... on O.J.'s world and anonymous sources as those bad old days in our ethical evolution."

Defenders of confidential sources say they bring to light important stories that otherwise would never surface. If used carefully, they say, unnamed sources are a valuable tool.

"The job of a journalist, particularly someone who's spent time dealing in sensitive areas, is to find out what really happened," says author and Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward. "When you are reporting on inside the White House, the Supreme Court, the CIA or the Pentagon, you tell me how you're going to get stuff on the record. …

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