2005 Annual Report - Network TV Content Analysis
Journalists' reliance on anonymous sources has been debated for years. Various surveys have shown that the public tends to dislike anonymous sources. Journalists, on the other hand, consider them critical to gaining certain kinds of information - especially secret government and corporate activities, or indeed anything that gets beyond the "spin" of official talking points. Television personnel have also told us they sometimes drop identification of a source simply to save time in a report.
The level of anonymous sourcing also reflects a struggle for control between journalists and their sources. The more a journalist needs a source to "talk," the more power a source has to demand anonymity.
A handful of erroneous reports over the last three years have led some news organizations to clarify their policies on anonymous sourcing. The Washington Post, for instance, now promises it will explain in every case why it agreed to allow a source this protection. And indeed in print we found the use of anonymous sourcing this year to have fallen (to just 13% of all front-page stories and 7% of all stories studied).
Was there evidence of a similar tightening of use of anonymous sourcing in network news? In a word, no.
In commercial nightly newscasts in 2003, we found that 43% of stories contained sourcing that to the audience was anonymous. In 2004, anonymity was up to 53%, more than half. The practice was slightly less prevalent at the NewsHour, but 47% of the stories contained at least one anonymous source, up substantially from 15% a year earlier. Part of the jump may be explained by the dominance in 2004 of internal, closely guarded government stories like Abu Ghraib and accusations surrounding the 9/11 hearings and report.
Package stories were more likely to have anonymous sources than anchor-read briefs, 68% to 31%, as were major running stories, which tend to be more controversial: about 60% of all the stories about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Haiti, Israel/Palestine, the Madrid bombing, and the high-profile court cases had anonymous sources.
On the morning programs as well, 50% of all coverage included at least one anonymous source. The figure rose to 79% of the morning packages, roughly 10 percentage points higher than for the evening newscasts.