According to a survey by the Associated Press and the AP Managing Editors, a quarter of all U.S. newspapers forbid using anonymous sources under any circumstances.
Phil Lucas, executive editor of The News Herald of Panama City, Fla.,
said his paper has quoted anonymous sources only about once every three
years, under restrictions so tight that "we would not use a source such
as Deep Throat," who turned out to be former FBI official Mark Felt.
Willingness to rely on unnamed sources was negatively correlated with the size of a newspaper’s market, which appears to suggest a lower overall reliability among big city papers. Further, major market editors defended the practice as one only used in the most compelling and vital stories.
"The use of unnamed sources is limited to the most compelling cases
where an important story can be told no other way," said David
Boardman, managing editor of The Seattle Times.
Carl Lavin, deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said
that his paper discourages the use of unnamed sources, but "this needs
to be balanced with the need to present vital information to the reader
that cannot be obtained by other means."
I can understand the need to balance sources’ rock solidity with the importance of getting a hot story to the presses, but what’s the long-term trade-off of scooping your competitors at the risk of a permanent hit to your credibility when a source doesn’t prove out? Given the fact that the any anonymous source blunder is likely to involve an already high-profile story, it sounds like the small-town papers have the right idea.
I’d be interested to see this study repeated 5 years from now, after the fallout from some of the recent, notorious errors has been more fully realized.