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Little Birdies

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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.

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  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    I used to not think of anonymous-sourcing as an important issue. But I now realize that I was wrong.

    When someone can make outrageous and bogus statements to a credulous media person with their complete anonimity assurred, we have a problem. A BIG problem. Like, riots and death can be the result…

  • jarboy

    do the news media realize that they are the only ones obsessed with this scooping thing? like i’m going to suddenly switch papers because the other paper got the story first. is that the fear?

  • http://georgepwood.com George P. Wood

    Exactly right, Jarboy! Plus, in the digital age, TV and internet media will always scoop “dead tree” media. By the time newspapers publish their “scoops,” Drudge will have already filed a report on it.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Most of the most trafficked Web sites for news are the Web sites of “old dead tree media.” Or hadn’t you noticed?

    Drudge gets the vast majority of his “reports” from other media outlets. Or hadn’t you noticed?

    He’s made incredible blunders that make some of the network news errors / faults pale in comparison. Because he’s on the net, he’s given a huge pass. Or hadn’t you noticed?

    Just saying.