This Readers Speak survey was sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editors National Credibility Roundtables Project through its Reader Interactive initiative. A total of 35 news organizations, including The Daily Astorian, helped gather 1,611 responses from 42 states. The results are not scientific; readers were contacted because they had given their e-mail address to their local newspaper, and comments were taken only online.
Second of two parts
Most readers and journalists agree that rewards can outweigh the risk of reporting based on anonymous sources. Still, a significant number of readers say the media would be better off not using them, even if that means waiting longer for an important story.
A recent survey of 419 media outlets found that most allow reporters to protect a source's identity in at least some cases. But nearly one-quarter of editors said they've banned the practice entirely. Responding to a voluntary online survey sent out by local newspapers, a similar number of readers - about one in five - said media outlets should never report information if a source isn't willing to be named.
"I am tired of questionable stories naming an 'unnamed source,' or a 'source related to the presidency' or whatever," said Cindy Johnson, a registered nurse, of Astoria. "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."
Instead of offering news, anonymous sources have been the news recently, in two high-profile cases: the unveiling of "Deep Throat" and a since-retracted Newsweek report on an incident of Quran abuse. With media policy under wide discussion, the Associated Press and Associated Press Managing Editors surveyed journalists and readers to gauge attitudes toward anonymity in news stories.
The APME reviewed comments from 1,611 readers in 42 states, who were asked to describe how anonymous sources affect their trust in the news. Most readers were willing to leave them in the reporter's toolbox, and many said the media simply couldn't cover important stories without being able to protect people in vulnerable positions. Still, 44 percent said anonymity makes them less likely to believe what they read, consistently invoking one descriptive phrase: the double-edged sword.
"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. "On the other hand, the use of anonymous sources makes the media a dupe for putting out unreliable stories."
Editors should be willing to take the risk for an important report, readers said, 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.
Used properly, said Kenneth Stammerman of Louisville, Ky., hidden sources aren't just important for bombshell stories. They're also a tool toward effective and accurate daily reporting. "When I was in the American Foreign Service as an embassy economist in Tel Aviv, Kuwait, or Dhahran, I would provide nonclassified but sensitive info to reporters who knew me (and I them) to make sure they got the stories right. If they used my name in the story, my own sources would dry up."
But most readers said the hustle for a "scoop" has made the media too eager to cater to anonymous sources, and too willing to run stories without corroborating evidence. Seeking verification is the most important thing a reporter can do; the public says it's willing to wait for a more trustworthy news report.
"Anonymous sources should be considered the journalistic equivalent of the 'nuclear option,'" said Kevin Crawford of Yakima, Wash. "If the information provided cannot be independently verified, it cannot and should not be used. The standard of verification must be set much higher for anonymous sources than that used for open sources, as the risks associated with error are so much higher."
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