Newspaper Ombudsmen's Reactions to Use of Anonymous Sources

By Wilson, Sherrie L.; Babcock, William A. et al. | Newspaper Research Journal, Summer-Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Newspaper Ombudsmen's Reactions to Use of Anonymous Sources


Wilson, Sherrie L., Babcock, William A., Pribek, John, Newspaper Research Journal


Surveys of ombudsmen find that most feel their papers use anonymous sources about the right amount and that the public does not object to such use.

Journalists are ambivalent about the use of anonymous sources: They criticize their overuse, yet they often depend on them for information when writing stories.(1) A 1979 American Society of Newspaper Editors study demonstrated these mixed attitudes. Eighty-one percent of the 203 journalist respondents to a mail survey said unnamed sources were less believable, on the whole, than named sources, yet 87 percent said the use of unnamed sources was, on balance, a good practice.(2)

Journalists' ambivalence continues in the 1990s. In a 1994 American Journalism Review article, Alicia C. Shepard wrote: "Many journalists feel about anonymous sources the way people in troubled relationships feel about their partners: can't live with them, can't live without them."(3)

The use of anonymous sources presents what Carl Hausman called "conflicts of accountability."(4) He said journalists have obligations to sources including the protection of their identities if they have been promised confidentiality - but journalists also have obligations to the public - including providing complete information about their sources. When reporters use anonymous sources, the public has less opportunity to evaluate the truthfulness of the information. In many cases, Hausman said, journalists could get more information on the record with additional investigative effort.(5) Even respondents to the American Society of Newspaper Editors' survey estimated that 56 percent of the unnamed sources quoted in American newspapers would agree to be quoted by name if reporters insisted.(6)

The debate about the use of anonymous sources often gets played out in journalistic trade publications with some writers bemoaning their use, some stressing their utility for certain types of stories, and others trying to find the right balance for their use.(7)

Much of the recent academic research on the use of anonymous sources occurred after the Washington Post lost a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 because reporter Janet Cooke fabricated a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. In a 1981-82 study of newspapers and television stations, K. Tim Wulfemeyer found that 40 percent of the news executives surveyed reported scrutinizing stories more carefully after the Cooke case, and 32 percent reported greater demands on reporters to reveal the names of anonymous sources to editors.(8) O.J. Simpson's criminal trial again triggered concerns about anonymous sources because of "numerous erroneous stories based on false information attributed to unnamed sources."(9)

The 1991 U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Cohen v. Cowles Media(10) also prompted academic and legal interest in the media's use of anonymous sources, but from a different perspective. In Cohen, the court held that the First Amendment did not exempt newspapers from their obligations to keep promises of confidentiality to news sources. Numerous articles in law and academic journals criticized the decision for its intrusion into an area usually controlled more by ethical than legal considerations.(11)

Some media organizations have policies regarding the use of anonymous sources. Wulfemeyer found about 24 percent of 65 newspapers and 64 televisions stations he surveyed had formal, written policies on the use of anonymous sources. The percentage was 32 percent for newspapers and 16 percent for televisions stations. About 71 percent of the media surveyed (69 percent for newspapers and 72 percent for television stations) had informal policies.(12) Charles N. Davis, Susan D. Ross and Paul H. Gates Jr. found that 40 percent of 64 large-circulation newspapers had written policies on the use of anonymous sources; 92 percent of the newspapers had either a written or a nonwritten policy.(13)

But policies go only so far. Ethical decisions about the use of anonymous sources are usually made on a case-by-case basis. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Newspaper Ombudsmen's Reactions to Use of Anonymous Sources
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.