APME Survey: More Than Half Of Readers Don’t Mind Anonymous Sources

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By: Joe Strupp

More than half of readers surveyed in a new poll said the use of anonymous sources in a story either had no effect on their view of the story, or made it more believable. Another 44%, however, said such sourcing made them less likely to believe the story, while one in five of the respondents said media outlets should never use sources who refuse to be named.

The survey, released today by Associated Press Managing Editors, indicated that 42% of those polled said anonymous sources made no difference in their view of a story, while 11% said it made the story more believable.

The APME survey, sponsored by the group’s National Credibility Roundtables Project, sought responses via the Web through 35 news organizations in 42 states. A total of 1,611 readers offered their opinions, which included numerous comments as well.

“What jumped out at me is how even-handed readers seemed to be,” said Carol Nunnelley, APME program director. “They had a real handle on the subtleties of these decisions that editors make.”

But Nunnelley offered some surprise that more respondents were willing to accept the use of such sources, including some who believed such stories more. She credited some of that to the recent revelations about Deep Throat, which occurred prior to the survey.

“The conventional wisdom on anonymous sources is that they hurt and need to be used only in extraordinary causes,” she said. “The recent news on Deep Throat might have emphasized the value of anonymous sources.”

Editors at 419 news organizations responded to a similar survey several weeks ago, which indicated that most allowed reporters to protect source identities in some cases. But nearly 25% of those editors had banned the use completely.

Along with the latest reader survey data, APME released comments from readers who took part, which indicated a mix of opinion.

“I am tired of questionable stories naming an ‘unnamed source,’ or a ‘source related to the presidency’ or whatever,” Cindy Johnson of
Astoria, Ore wrote with her response. “If people are willing to give information, they should be willing to give their name. It is far too easy to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.”

“Anonymity brings with it a willingness to cast light into the dark
places that hide secrets about what we all need to know,” said Bruce Fritz of Mesa, Ariz, another responent. “On the other hand, the use of anonymous sources makes the media a dupe for putting out unreliable stories.”

The survey also revealed that readers believed “editors should be willing to take the risk for an important report, holding the government and other powers accountable. But, they cautioned that the only credibility at stake is the media’s: The more believable a newspaper has been in the past, the more likely readers are to accept its judgment on anonymity. But trust the wrong source, and the public will stop trusting you.”

The survey then asked respondents to review the anonymous sourcing rules of the Associated Press, which requires that an anonymous source may be used when: the material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report; the information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source; and the source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

“A great majority of readers said these guidelines seemed fine,” the survey stated. “If, that is, newspapers actually follow them.

In addition, the survey asked readers to comment on three recent examples of anonymous sourcing in news reports. In each case, arguments supporting and opposing their use were put forth.

–Case 1: Details of an intelligence report on troop strength in Iraq were revealed in a newspaper story, which made clear that the report was classified. Military officers aren’t supposed to discuss classified material; that’s why they were anonymous in the story.

“Readers discussing this example were overwhelmingly worried about the damage that could be caused by reporting troop information,” the report stated.

“I think this was a story that was inappropriate to release to the public because it could put soldiers currently in Iraq at greater risk than they already are,” Julie Elliott of Janesville, Wis. wrote in her response “When lives are at stake, certain information should remain classified.”

“As a retired Naval Officer, I firmly believe that any officer who
reveals classified information has broken his oath, and should be
court-martialed,” John A. Merritt III of Neptune Beach, Fla. added.

–Case 2: A newspaper story on conductor Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony included a comment from an anonymous musician, attacking Slatkin’s leadership and judgment.

“This is an appropriate use,” said Deborah Walsh of Hilliard, Ohio. “The source needed anonymity to protect his/her job or future evaluations. There was some opinion included but there were also facts. The opinion stated was the source’s obvious interpretation of the situation. Also, in story such as this, it would be very easy to approach the conductor for a rebuttal, or to get the other side of the situation, to provide a balanced report.”

Stan Fulton of Mesa, Ariz., wanted to put the comments in context: “Is this just the opinion of one person? Did the reporter attend any
rehearsals or the concert to witness the ‘… loud, crass and
unbelievably ugly …’ music?” he wrote. “One person’s opinion alone would not be enough to justify causing Slatkin this kind of embarrassment.”

–Case 3: An unnamed New York Mets club official said the team was close to signing a contract with pitcher Kris Benson.

“Many readers chalked this up the standard practice of the sports news rumor mill. Besides, it’s just a baseball story, right?” the report said. “It sounds like typical sports gossip to me and has been a fact of life since the beginning of sports reporting,” wrote Teri Anne Beauchamp of Everett, Wash. “No one takes it seriously and a reasonable person would take it with a grain of salt anyway.”

But a “significant number” said the source’s possible motives are
transparent, and not in line with the role a newspaper ought to play.

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