- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

The use of anonymous sources in the newspapers and television shrank by one-third between the Reagan and second Bush presidencies, according to a study released today by the District-based Center for Media and Public Affairs.

The long-term conclusion?

“Journalists are making the news more transparent and sources more accountable,” said study director Robert Lichter, characterizing as the “exception” Newsweek’s reliance on a single unnamed source for a now-recanted report that U.S. interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp flushed a Koran down the toilet.

The massive analysis examined almost 23,000 news stories in six newspapers and on three major broadcast networks from 1981 to 2001.

During the first year that President Reagan was in office, 24 percent of the stories used unnamed sources. By President Bush’s first year at the White House, the number had fallen to 16 percent.

Although study analyst Matthew Felling declined to speculate on whether the various administrations influenced the decline, he did note a certain cultural influence among journalists themselves.

“Immediately after Watergate, there was an ‘anonymity chic’ at work, where many interview subjects fancied themself another Deep Throat,” Mr. Felling said, referring to the anonymous Watergate source. “Over the 20 years of stories I studied, I believe the media looked at anonymous sources the same way the Clintons looked at abortion: They need to be legal, safe and rare.”

Indeed, the “Deep Throat” mind-set, which may have originated at The Washington Post during the Watergate era was influential. That newspaper — along with the New York Times — relied more upon on-the-record comments that other papers in the study.

It found that both the Post and the New York Times cited such sources in almost a third of their stories in the Reagan era, although the practice had dropped at both papers by 2001 — by 37 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

In the other papers studied, 24 percent of stories used anonymous sources in 1981, dropping to just 14 percent in 2001. The other papers surveyed were the Austin American-Statesman, the Des Moines Register, the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Petersburg Times.

Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather lost credibility last year after relying on an unnamed source who said Mr. Bush compromised his Vietnam-era National Guard service. But Mr. Rather may be a rarity.

The study found that in their overall coverage, ABC, CBS and NBC actually had the lowest proportion of unnamed sources — ranging from 16 percent of stories in 1981 to 14 percent in 2001.

Reliance on unnamed sources alone is fast becoming a journalistic no-no; the New York Times, for example, recently vowed to cut back on — or eliminate — their use of such sources to regain their credibility after reporter Jayson Blair admitted in 2003 to make up all or part of some articles.

Mr. Felling thinks that the claims from “media graybeards” that use of unnamed sources is rampant are exaggerated.

“It’s like looking in the rear view mirror. The phenomenon may appear larger than it is,” he noted.

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