The debate over anonymous sources is getting nice coverage in the NY Times right now. First, the public editor wrote on the findings of a study on their use in the paper. Now, the managing editor is answering questions about the practice. Here’s the first one:
Q. It seems to me that 40 years ago The Times did pretty well without anonymous sources. Or is my aging memory failing me? I think the reason we got ourselves to where we are today is because too many scribes became lazy and/or too accommodating and they feel that is the only way journalism will work today. It will take courage, I realize, but if papers got together and declared they would no longer use anonymous sources, it would not be long before we would be back to normal. Y’all should try one part of the picture, i.e., Congress, and not spew their P.R. any more without a source.
— Alice Barnes
A. The Times and other major news organizations have relied for centuries on anonymous sources, including, in the most famous case of all, the Pentagon Papers, almost exactly 40 years ago (the Columbia Journalism School study, alas, does not have a decade-by-decade comparison). And the suggestions in your question, that if we banned anonymous sources we would get back to ‘normal,’ and that anonymous sources have made reporters lazy, are ones with which I disagree.
Looks like my dissertation topic — a 40-year study of the NY Times’ use of anonymous sources — will be eagerly received.
(Hattip: Andrew Nelson)