A Downward Trend in Use of Anonymous Sources: Surveys of Journalists and Public Opinion Place the Use and Need for Anonymous Sources in a Broader Context

Nieman Reports, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

A Downward Trend in Use of Anonymous Sources: Surveys of Journalists and Public Opinion Place the Use and Need for Anonymous Sources in a Broader Context


Tom Rosenstiel, who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, spoke about some findings on the use of anonymous sources that are in the 2005 State of the Media report issued by his project.

We examined 16 newspapers of varying sizes and, in that sample, seven percent of all the stories contained at least one anonymous source. That is down from 29 percent that we found in a similar sample a year ago. With front-page stories, it's 13 percent, also down from last year. The bigger the paper, not surprisingly, the more prevalent anonymous sourcing is. If we examined just Washington stories, my hypothesis is that the number would be even higher. In looking at other media, something interesting emerges. In network television, more than half of the stories contain anonymous sources, and when we looked at packages on TV--eliminating the stories that the anchor reads, which are very brief--the number goes up to 68 percent. Is that because those stories are more investigative and include more secret material? I'm not sure that's the cause. We've been told by people in network television that often they eliminate attributions simply because of the compression of time. It's convenient to just say, "Administration sources say...." If we went back and looked at the tapes, I suspect a lot of these references to anonymous sources would not be on stories where the information was somehow closely held. In cable, which is a more extemporaneous medium with very few news packages and most of the time is spent in live interviews, only nine percent of the stories have anonymous sources. On the Internet, where the stories are largely from print sources--very heavily wire copy--we looked just at the Web page's four or five lead stories and 19 percent of the stories contained anonymous sources. What I think this tells us is that the format, and not always the journalism, determines how much transparency there is about sourcing.

Gene Policinski, who is executive director of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, described findings from a recent public opinion survey about the use of anonymous sources and also from a questionnaire that was given to journalists to determine the frequency and utility of their use of these sources. …

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