Anonymous sources can play an important role in breaking an explosive story, but that anonymity requires trust — in sources, but also the reporters themselves.
Last year, USA Today acknowledged that its former star reporter, Jack Kelley, fabricated quotes and entire stories. He hid some of his fictional anecdotes behind unnamed sources.
USA Today Editor Ken Paulson says important stories can draw upon anonymous sources, but says they have to be a rare exception.
Examples of anonymous sources in 'The Washington Post'
Many newspapers have tried to tighten their rules allowing the use of confidential sources, but no major paper has taken a harder line than USA Today.
On average, one article a day in the paper features an anonymous source: Editors say that's down 75 percent since last October. Reporters say the change in policy has its pluses, and pitfalls.
The Public's Perspective
From the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: 'Split Over Anonymous Sources'
The recent revelation of the identity of the press informant known as Deep Throat from the Watergate scandal brought the issue of confidential news sources back into public view. Americans are divided on the general question of whether it is acceptable for news organizations to use unnamed sources in their reporting. About half (52%) say the use of such sources is too risky because it can lead to inaccurate reports, while 44% say it is okay because it can yield important news that they otherwise wouldn't get. People who say they paid very close attention to the Deep Throat story are much more positive about the use of confidential sources than those who paid less attention to this story (60% vs. 41%).
People with college degrees are more apt than the less educated to say the use of confidential sources is acceptable (56% among those with at least a B.A.; 37% among high school graduates), and more Democrats than Republicans say it is okay (51% vs. 36%). Younger respondents are more opposed than older ones to the use of confidential sources, with fully 68% of those 18-24 saying the use of such sources is too risky. But most Americans think the use of confidential sources is at least sometimes justified. Over three-quarters (76%) think reporters should sometimes be allowed to keep their sources confidential if that is the only way to get information, while 19% say reporters should always reveal their sources. Despite the recent visibility of the Deep Throat story, opinions on this question are no different today than they were twenty years ago.
Excerpt from "Public More Critical of Press, But Goodwill Persists," June 2005