Some of the most pivotal pieces of journalism wouldn't exist without anonymous sources. The obvious and most famous example is Watergate. But the practice of protecting certain sources by keeping them unnamed has crept into routine reporting, and ombudsmen and outside newspaper critics have noticed. They lament how the practice obfuscates reporting, undoes the trust news outlets establish with their audiences, and (sometimes) facilitates shoddy journalism.
But there's good news: editors have heard and acted on those criticisms, a new study shows. Matt J. Duffy, a professor at the United Arab Emirates' Zayed University, looked into how two newspapers in particular--The New York Times and The Washington Post--have used unnamed sources over the past six decade. He has found that anonymous sourcing peaked in 1970s, during journalism's reputed "Golden Age," and has fallen since then.
There are a few caveats to the study: Only two newspapers were used, data from only one representative year in each decade was taken, and only front-page stories were looked at. But there are still several discernable trends. The use of unnamed sources been on the decline since its 1970s peak, with The Post historically relying more on unnamed sources than The Times. Duffy's research also shows that reporters are more likely to describe unnamed sources ("a reliable source" vs. "a senior Pentagon official'"), offer explanation for keeping contacts anonymous ("...who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the issue..."), and verify uncredited information ("...other military officials backed up his claim...") today than they were in the past.
This is good news for hard-line newsies. Poynter reports that outgoing New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, an anti-anonymity advocate, was "heartened" by the findings, as is Marcus Brauchli, The Post's top editor. This also of course makes an academic like Duffy happy, though he thinks anonymous sources are still used too often. "I'm calling for the Society of Professional Journalists to change their code of ethics to limit the use of anonymous sources more," he wrote in an email. "So, perhaps this will have some real-world impact -- a rarity for an academic."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.