March 21, 2004

Anonymous Sources? Used Less or More Since the New Policy?

Jay Rosen reminds me with his Die, Strategy News piece on strategy journalism, at the end, that the article he's discussing uses anonymous sources from camp Bush to characterize how they see camp Kerry. We now have a comparable period of time post-Anonymous Sources Policy Change to revisit this issue since last month, where 2 weeks, as well as 2 days, of "anonymous" or "anonymity" search results were compared. 16 news organizations, including the NYTimes and AP, signed off on this policy which includes:

But it appears that when anonymous sources are used, besides for those international political situations or for people who fear for their jobs or are under threat of prosecution, those requesting anonymity are still doing it for the same reasons: they want to hide, not be accountable, to plant information with the public in the marketplace of ideas, without having their biases exposed, or having their ideas accounted for over time and across articles. It also means that reporters can continue to use the same sources over and over, with no tracking because we don't know the names of these sources. It appears to be a particularly bad habit with Bush Administration officials, though Democratic strategists and others are doing it as well.

My conclusion: this is just as much a problem as before, though in some ways the NYTimes is doing a little better now than a month ago, because they are explaining a little more often and more thoroughly why this is done. Three of the NYTimes articles are clearly using anonymous sources for good reasons, but the other five do not, and are therefore not following the new policy. AP seems to be using anonymous sources just as much as before in articles on domestic issues, but far more with international stories. 4 of the AP articles are domestic, and they use anonymous sources in ways that do not comply with their new policy.

JD Lasica in the comments of the first post notes: I've never met a reporter who didn't wince (at least a little) when someone asks to go on background. I understand what he is saying, but I also think that it's too easily accepted, even if people do wince. It's up to reporters to stand up for the public, and the public record, to say that their paper's policy is not to accept these comments off the record. Part of the reason the press is protected in the Constitution is because of the important role they play in the public discourse, and the trade off, morally, is that they must protect the public by forcing people to speak honestly. I believe that once people get used to seeing frank remarks on the record they will still speak out but won't ask for their words to be anonymous, and won't manipulate reporters this way.

Search terms: anonymous or anonymity
Date range post-policy: March 6 to March 21, 2004 results: 1002 articles
AP results from WDC Post with AP only selected: 607 (many of these are reposted articles, with either no alterations or altered slightly, so the same articles show up numerous times, and I'm not sure how to count them and don't have the time to really get it right, so I won't try to characterize what the real number is.)

Compare this to the search for the two week period before the policy change:
NYT: 995
AP: 540

For the two day searches, which I did go through to find and include only articles using anonymous sources and so removed any cites that were not about anon sources but that used these words:

Date range post policy: Feb 26 and 27 results: 9
AP results: 15 distinct articles, with only 4 not on international politics.

March 20 and 21: results: 8
AP results: 28 distinct articles total, with only 4 not on international politics.

Note: the AP search was done on the site, where AP can be isolated in the advanced search function.

See below under more for a comparison of the articles and text that use these sources.

Examples of usage from articles over the last two days, March 20/21:

NYTimes Articles:

We've Got Algorithm, but How About Soul? (or here) By BILL WERDE Published: March 21, 2004

This article actually includes context and let's the reader know why sources don't want to be on the record.

Airlines Told to Supply Data on Loan Panel By MICHELINE MAYNARD Published: March 20, 2004

No clue as to why this quote and person need to be anonymous.

Clinton Aides Plan to Tell Panel of Warning Bush Team on Qaeda By PHILIP SHENON Published: March 20, 2004

If these Clinton officials are going to testify, and put this information into the press' hands, why not be quoted directly?

Knicks Have Little Time and Much to Prove By CHRIS BROUSSARD Published: March 20, 2004

"Stephon is an absolute enigma," one general manager said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He's a brilliant talent, he can score points in bunches and he has assists numbers that, quite frankly, match Jason Kidd's over his career. But he has this stigma that he's not a team player, that he's a guy that can't win."

Why the reporter would allow this when the information could either be gotten another way, and other managers are quoted directly, is unclear. Also, the manager's motives are not explained.

Recruiting of Parents Lags for Some School Councils By ELISSA GOOTMAN Published: March 20, 2004


90-Day Media Strategy by Bush's Aides to Define Kerry By JIM RUTENBERG Published: March 20, 2004

As Jay Rosen says: But none of them (the new anon policy exceptions) applies to Bush advisors taking swipes--anonymously--at John Kerry.

Online Poker: Hold 'Em and Hide 'Em By IAN URBINA Published: March 19, 2004

Understandable here....

AP: of the 28 distinct articles, 4 were not on international politics:

GOP Looks to Retain Control of House By DAVID ESPO Pub: Sunday, March 21, 2004; 2:05 PM

This is ridiculous. Why is this person's information being used, why is this quote necessary to the story. The information could be obtained elsewhere.

Bush Holds First Campaign Event in Fla. By PETE YOST Pub: Saturday, March 20, 2004; 12:24 PM

Scientist Lauded After Gov't Fires Her By PAUL ELIAS Pub: Saturday, March 20, 2004; 11:14 AM

Review Finds Rowland Rejected Gifts By MATT APUZZO and JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN Pub: Saturday, March 20, 2004; 8:26 AM

??? If this guy rejected gifts, why can't someone be found who can put forth the idea that one guy says he met with another guy? Who would get into trouble?

Posted by Mary Hodder at March 21, 2004 12:10 PM | TrackBack