January 28, 2002

Return to Normalcy?

Who's Your Source?

Another major issue facing the press culture in recent years has been sourcing. Cutbacks in newsrooms, the speed of the news cycle, the scaling back of foreign coverage, all have put pressure on the ability of journalists to have the time, resources, opportunity and source lists to gather news carefully.

All of these issues came into play during the Lewinsky scandal, for instance, when the Project found the use of single sourced stories exceeded even the levels of punditry.

Was the coverage of the war on terrorism showing signs of similar problems?

Named Versus Unnamed Sources

For the most part, as noted above, the sources were on the record and stayed that way. In both September and November, three-quarters (76%) of all sources were named.

That remained true across all media. The outlets with the lowest level of named sourcing, interestingly, were news magazines.

Sourcing in All Media
 
Named Sources 76% 76% 73% 76%
Unnamed Sources 24 24 27 24
Total 100 100 100 100

Number of Sources

Another sign of how solid a piece of reporting may be is how many sources it cites. Here, over time, the number fell considerably.

In September, nearly half of all stories (45%) cited four or more sources. By December, that had fallen to 29%.

The number of stories with one source grew from 20% to 25%. The number of stories citing just two sources rose from 11% to 16%.

Number of Sources
 
 
One-Two 31% 37% 41% 18% 19% 24% 46% 53% 50%
Three 9 10 14 8 8 11 8 11 15
Four+ 45 43 29 64 62 52 27 27 18
None 15 10 16 10 11 11 20 9 18
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

This was true across the board. While print had the most sources, the number of stories with four sources or more dropped from 64% to 52% over the course of the study. In television, the number of stories with four or more sources fell from 27% to 18%.

This matters, in part, because, as found in other studies, fewer sources translates into more opinion. Citizens might well expect the opposite: that only those journalists with the most sourcing and knowledge might venture into analysis or opinion. But just the reverse is true. The accounts with the fewest sources seem to take up the slack by offering the most interpretation.