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Unnamed attribution: A Historical Analysis of the Journalism Norms Surrounding the Use of Anonymous Sources


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Paper presented at AEJMC conference in Washington, DC, in August 2013. Abstract: This paper offers a historical examination of the journalistic norms surrounding the practice of citing anonymous sources. The author examines a variety of textbooks, guidebooks, trade press coverage, and codes of ethics over the past century. The analysis reveals that unnamed attribution, once scorned as a journalistic practice, has gained acceptance over time. As journalistic norms have evolved, the acceptance of the practice has spread beyond national government and international reporting to local coverage. Despite the general acceptance of this practice, journalistic norms surrounding when and how to use anonymous sources remain unsettled. This analysis also finds that journalism textbooks more often describe common practices of journalists rather than provide normative directives as to how journalists should act. Importantly, this study reveals that a journalistic tradition of independently verifying information from unnamed sources has dramatically diminished.

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Unnamed attribution: A Historical Analysis of the Journalism Norms Surrounding the Use of Anonymous Sources

  1. 1. A H I S T O R I C A L A N A L Y S I S O F T H E J O U R N A L I S M N O R M S S U R R O U N D I N G T H E U S E O F A N O N Y M O U S S O U R C E S B Y M A T T J . D U F F Y , P H . D . K E N N E S A W S T A T E U N I V E R S I T Y K E N N E S A W , G A . Unnamed Attribution
  2. 2. Purview of the study  How did journalists approach the practice of using anonymous sources over time?  Primary and secondary sources  Textbooks – dating back to 1907  Codes of ethics – ASNE, SPJ  Style guides: NYT, Washington Post, AP  Trade magazine coverage (All images public domain. Source:
  3. 3. Lit review  Boeyink (1990) argued anonymous sourcing overused, provided guidelines for limited use  Blankenship (1992) disagreed, noted value to society of discussing issues revealed via anonymity  Son (2003) stressed “leaks” from government gave officials too much power to shape news coverage  Smith (2007), Sternadori and Thorson (2009) found some audiences didn’t trust anonymous sourcing  Duffy and Williams (2012) found anonymous sourcing peaked in 1960s, 1970s
  4. 4. Methodology  Textbooks picked from bookshelf at Georgia State University library  31 textbooks total (census), examined for any reference to unnamed sources  Focused on “nuts and bolts” books, not theoretical  Excluded books devoted to ethics, journalism outside US  SPJ, ASNE codes of ethics (started changing in 70s)  Style manuals from NYT, Washington Post, AP  Any mention of “Anonymous Sources” in CJR  Analyzed how texts treated use of unnamed sources
  5. 5. Findings – four major conclusions  Anonymous sourcing not always accepted practice.  Practice became widely established and accepted among journalists in 1970s, but parameters varied  In last two decades, normative guidelines not offered in journalism textbooks.  Norm of independently verifying all information attributed to unnamed sources (once widely stressed) diminished dramatically by 2000s.
  6. 6. Not always accepted  Earliest textbooks don’t mention anonymous sourcing, first reference is 1955  Hohenberg (1960) says:  “Editors [in the past] generally insisted that the sources of the news must be identified by name, whether or not they could be quoted directly. The presence of an anonymous figure, who could not be described in any way except in relation to what he represented, was almost an affront to many reporters and editors.”  Foreign coverage tended to be exception  “Lindley Rule” – Newsweek war reporter
  7. 7. Widely used, but differing parameters  By 1970s, anonymous sourcing accepted practice  More emphasis on normative guidelines Bush (1970): Source must be reliable, purpose honorable Burrows (1977): Must be important, apparently true, independently verified, danger to life or profession  SPJ code introduced in 1975:  “Unless there is clear and pressing need to maintain confidences, sources of information should be identified.”  In 1980s, far less rigorous:  Rivers (1984): No guidelines for use, cited ex.: Biz owner could be quoted anonymously to criticize city policy.
  8. 8. Not all texts offer normative guidance  After 1980s, normative guidance far less likely in textbooks  Instead, textbooks described how media outlets practiced journalism  Code of ethics, style manuals provided substantial normative guidance
  9. 9. Independent verification rule wanes  In 1970s, many textbooks stressed independent verification of anonymous information  Jibed with common understanding of Watergate reporting  Some now call Watergate verification rule dubious  Williams (1978):  Journalists “decry the story based on a single unnamed source. The writer, therefore, must get confirmation, not from other unnamed people, but from records and from attributable sources.”  By 2000s, importance of verification rule waned
  10. 10. Independent verification rule wanes  NYT editor Bill Keller (2008):  “Quantity is not the same as quality, which is why we do not have a “two source rule” or a “three source rule.” One actual participant in an event may be better than three people who heard about it third‐hand, or from one another. One neutral witness may be more valuable than a crowd of partisans”  AP style book (2004):  Journalists should “be sure to seek more than one source for the story.”  AP style book (2009) omits the sentence  (Washington Post notably still requires it)
  11. 11. My conclusions, recommendations  Anonymous sourcing should be treated with more care (as it apparently was in the 1950s)  Journalism textbooks should contain normative guidelines, not just industry practices  We should debate whether independent verification should be required  Perhaps guidelines for when single-source anonymous source is OK?
  12. 12. The End!  Slides posted on:  Follow me at:  And on Twitter: @mattjduffy  Email: