By Steve Myers on Poynter, Aug. 9, 2011 – Newspaper ombudsmen and media critics complain often about excessiveand unnecessary use of anonymous sources, and yet the press uses them less frequently now than in the so-called “golden age” of journalism.
The use of unnamed sources peaked in the 1970s in the wake of Watergate. By 2008 it had dropped to the same relative frequency as in 1958, according to a paper to be presented at AEJMC this week.
“Going into this, I really did think that I was going to find that anonymous sourcing was used more than in the past,” said Prof. Matt J. Duffy, a professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi who worked on the study with Prof. Ann E. Williams of Georgia State University.
The other key findings:
- Nowadays journalists almost always describe anonymous sources in some way rather than simply calling them “reliable sources.” In 1958, 34 percent of stories with unnamed sources used such vague language; that dropped to under 3 percent in 2008.
- Reporters are doing a better job of explaining why they grant anonymity. In 2008, about a quarter of stories offered some explanation. While Duffy said that’s still low, through 1998 such explanations were provided in fewer than 10 percent of stories.
- Journalists haven’t changed their practice of independently verifying all information from anonymous sources. They do so in most cases, but not all.