Anonymous Source Use Falls in Print, Rises in Broadcast Journalism

Results from a Georgia State University study showed from 1958 to 2008 the number of stories in the New York Times and Washington Post citing anonymous sources peaked in the 1970s before declining until 2008.

A longitudinal review performed in 2010 by Matt J. Duffy and Ann E. Williams of Georgia State University examined the use of unnamed sources in articles that appeared in two newspapers over a span of 50 years. According to the study, the number of articles with unnamed sources in both papers was 76 in 1958, which was roughly 25 percent of all articles in the two newspapers.

Graph courtesy of Duffy's dissertation.

The number of articles with unnamed sources slowly climbed until peaking in 1978 with 111 articles with unnamed source use, or nearly 50 percent of all articles in the two newspapers.

Mike Leary, senior vice president and editor of the San Antonio Express-News newspaper, said he attributes the peak in anonymous source use in the late 1970s with the Watergate scandal brought about by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

“The ’70s,” Leary said, “in part because of Watergate, led to a spike in investigative reporting and watchdog reporting that hadn’t been the case so much before.”

“I think a lot of reporting too often resembled stenography, and there arose a group of younger reporters who really wanted to find out what was going on beyond what was evident in public,” Leary said.

According to Duffy’s review, the percentage of stories using unnamed sources by the two newspapers in 2008 was equal to that in 1958.

A 2005 study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism examined 16 newspapers of varying circulation sizes for a month. The Pew’s study concluded anonymous source use had dropped to just 7 percent of all stories.

Leary said the trend of anonymous source use has most likely gone down due to the professional norm of explaining why a source has been granted anonymity.

In addition, he said, it is a common practice to identify the anonymous source as much as possible without revealing the name, essentially narrowing down the possible subjects.

“We have to explain why,” Leary said, “and as much as possible we have to identify who the source is.

“You want to provide as much information as there is available to give readers an idea the person you’re quoting knows what they’re talking about.”

Graph courtesy of Matt Duffy's dissertation.

The results in Duffy’s review correlate with this new norm among journalists, stating only 3 percent of articles in 2008 used generic anonymous attribution versus 34 percent in 1958.

Conversely, Pew’s study showed an increase in anonymous source use in broadcast journalism. Pew found 43 percent of stories in commercial nightly newscasts in 2003 contained anonymous sourcing. That amount went up to 53 percent just a year later.

The project also found that story packages, pre-recorded stories involving a reporter standing in front of the camera at the scene of the story, were more likely to contain anonymous source use than anchor-read briefs. 68 percent of all story packages in the review contained anonymous sources versus 31 percent of anchor-read briefs.

Jeff Klotzman, news director and anchor for Fox 34 News in Lubbock, said he was surprised by the study’s results since there are less people doing investigative reporting, but he understands the decline due to less issue-oriented stories being covered and more event stories being covered.

“It’s just the type of stories they do now in broadcasting,” Klotzman said. “It’s the way that journalism has evolved in broadcast, which is basically quick and easy — the dirty kind of stories.”

“A lot of times,” Klotzman said, “the ethics of journalism get tossed out the window because the immediacy of the need to break stories.

Klotzman said he was not surprised network television suffered from anonymous source use more than cable or public television.

“I think there’s also been a change in journalism where at one time broadcasters did journalism because it went in parcel with keeping your license. Now there’s such little FCC oversight in that realm it doesn’t matter anymore. So, now it’s all about ratings.”

Chart courtesy of Duffy's dissertation.

Duffy’s paper highlighted a 1990 study by Dominic Lasorsa and Stephen Reese in regards to the Wall Street stock market crash. Lasorsa and Reese reported broadcast journalism consistently employs anonymous source use than print journalism due to time constraints.

Despite the research, Klotzman said he hasn’t seen an overwhelming increase in anonymous source use in broadcast journalism. Though it is a valuable tool for journalists, he said, anonymous source use is employed very rarely at his news station.

Both studies, though informative, have their limitations. Duffy and William’s study only examined two newspapers. Pew’s study was more in depth, analyzing more newspapers and broadcast journalism, yet only covered the span of two years before no longer reporting on anonymous source use. Duffy and Williams’ study also only reviews up to 2008.

The overall outcome pits research over practice. Research claims a drastic rise and fall in unnamed source use among print and broadcast, yet professionals in their respective fields have not seen such a drastic change as the research reveals.


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Duffy’s full dissertation can be read here, along with the additional charts and graphs not included in the article.

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