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More about anonymous sources…

posted by:Rob Carey // 11:59 PM // June 21, 2005 // ID TRAIL MIX

Like many people, I was fascinated by recent discussions in the media about the journalistic use of anonymous sources - occasioned in part by the troubles of Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and by the revelation of Deep Throat's identity.

In light of these events, the postings by Marsha Hanen and Dave Matheson on anonymity and credibility as they pertain to journalism were particularly interesting. Both point out that audiences should exercise care when interpreting stories in which unnamed sources are used. And if I understand Dave's post correctly, he also argues that anonymity does not necessarily obviate a source's credibility. Indeed, many news organizations try to take a similarly judicious position - formally, at least - on the use of unnamed
attribution, attempting to strike a balance between the need to maintain credibility with readers and the public's right to know. (The American Society of Newspaper Editors provides a compilation of various editorial policies regarding unnamed sources at http://www.asne.org).

Because this list was last updated in 2003, it may be more interesting as an artifact than anything else). As a former reporter, however, I am struck by a disparity between normative pronouncements about the use of unnamed sources - evident in
editorial policies - and the way such sources are actually used in practice.

Many editorial policies regarding anonymity are predicated on the assumption that granting anonymity to a source may be justified when it is necessary to get the story. However, unnamed sources - at least, in stories published by the "prestige press" - are sometimes used quite freely for other purposes. For example, as part of another paper that Jacquie and I are working on, we drew a sample of stories containing anonymous attribution published between 1993 -
2003 in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. (I should point out that our sample probably underrepresents the actual number of stories in which unnamed sources are used).

Although this wasn't a focus of our analysis, we were somewhat surprised to find that in 74 per cent of the stories we sampled, the key contentions tended not to rest on the testimony of an unnamed source. A closer reading suggested that anonymous sources were
frequently invoked simply to make the story more compelling - for example, to provide a vivid quote. In one sense, I suppose it's heartening to see that the majority of stories were not based solely on the testimony of unnamed sources.

On the other hand - and this is just speculation on my part - if it is
commonplace for journalists to view anonymous sources as an element of news writing style, to be deployed whenever a story needs to be "beefed up", to use Tina Brown's phrase, this may invite a certain laxness in their use, despite the careful qualifications of many editorial policies. All the more reason to view their use with caution. (As a side note, the Center for Media and Public
Affairs http://www.cmpa.com recently released a report noting that the use of anonymous sources in major U.S. media dropped by a third between the years 1981 and 2001. I haven't yet received a copy of the report, so I can't comment on it).

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Very interesting, Rob. I look forward to the paper that you and Jacquie are working on.

What's your sense of where the disparity between the normative pronouncements, on the one hand, and the actual practice, on the other, is most prominent? Does the disparity tend to pop up mostly when it comes to the use of anonymous sources for "beefing [spicing?] up" purposes, when it comes to their use for "key contention" purposes, or both?

Posted by: David Matheson at June 21, 2005 12:15 PM

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