On Ethics

On the Record: The Use of Anonymous Sources Is Down

Shadowy figures i i
istockphoto.com
Shadowy figures
istockphoto.com

The use of anonymous sources has dropped since the 1970s according to a recent study by Matt J. Duffy, a journalism professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, and Anne E. Williams, a communications professor at Georgia State University.

Duffy and Williams analyzed front page articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times from 1958 to 2008. As of 2008, about 25 percent of front page stories used unnamed sources, down from almost 50 percent in 1978.

Duffy, who presented the study at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in August, was surprised by the results. "Going into this, I really did think that I was going to find that anonymous sourcing was used more than in the past," he told Steve Meyers of the Poynter journalism institute.

Although the study did not review NPR's journalism, it appears to indicate that in general reporters and editors are doing a better job of differentiating when an anonymous source should and shouldn't be used.

But the conversation still comes up regularly in newsrooms. Last month, an online editor at a member station wrote to me asking for clearer guidelines for his station.

NPR is currently in the process of revising its ethics code, but the most recent version, updated in 2009, says:

ANONYMOUS SOURCES:

Although NPR journalists do agree to talk to sources on background when necessary, NPR's strong preference is to have people on the record. Before any information is accepted without full attribution, reporters should make every reasonable effort to get it on the record. If that is not possible, reporters should consider seeking the information elsewhere. When reporters quote anonymous sources, the editor or producer of that story has an obligation to satisfy him/herself that the source is credible and reliable, and there is a journalistically justifiable reason to let that person speak without attribution. This obligation also pertains to situations where individuals ask that their real names be withheld. The editor or producer has a twofold responsibility: (1) to make a judgment about whether it is editorially justified to let the person speak anonymously or under cover of a pseudonym or partial description, and (2) to satisfy him/herself that this person is who the piece says s/he is. An editor should never be in the position of having to verify these things after a story has aired and a question is raised about it. If a pseudonym is used, the reporter must disclose this in the story.

Give me your suggestions for the new code and I will pass them on to the editors. I personally wonder if the new one shouldn't specifically ban anonymous negative personal comments unless there is some strongly compelling public interest not to.

Lori Grisham contributed to this post.

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