Why the New York Times Should Have More Anonymous Sources

Includes: GHC, NWS, NYT
by: Zubin Jelveh

To stay competitive. I'll explain why at the bottom of this post, but first:

Yesterday I looked at the use of anonymous sources by large news outlets, but today I'd like to go through and be a little more systematic about it. I relied on a "propensity" measure which was simply the number of articles that had phrases you'd typically use to cite someone anonymously divided by the total number of articles that were published by a news source. This showed the Wall Street Journal to be much more likely to go with an unnamed source than its competitors.

But I wasn't totally happy with the propensity measure in its current form because the WSJ devotes much less space to softer news (like styles, sports, arts) than, say, the New York Times. In order to balance the playing field, today I'll focus solely only those sections that are most likely to need anonymous sourcing: national, politics, foreign, and business.

(This appears to be a good tactic: For the Washington Post and the New York Times, it's nine times more likely to find anonymous sourcing in those hard news sections than in the rest of pages, and for the WSJ, it's 12 times more likely.)

I described my methodology yesterday and I've listed the updated search terms I used at the end of this post. I restricted the search to the three most influential papers: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

Again, these numbers are guaranteed to be inexact for a number of reasons:

  • False alarms: An article gets flagged by my search as having anonymous sourcing when in fact it does not (I looked at about 200 search results and this happened very, very rarely).
  • As commenter Dexter pointed out yesterday, sometimes a paper uses a phrase like "people familiar with" to source anonymously, but sometimes those people are identified later in the article. I have no way of catching these, but again I think this counts for a very small portion of the results.
  • An article with more than one anonymous source will only get counted once.
  • An article may itself be about anonymous sourcing.

But here we go:

The Wall Street Journal still comes out ahead as being most likely to use anonymous sourcing. The first chart shows the raw number of stories that were flagged over the last two years. The second chart shows the percentage of all articles in the hard news sections that were flagged.

anony1.jpg anony2.jpg

Let's look at a possible Murdoch effect again. The News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS) chief has reportedly asked WSJ reporters and editors to land more scoops. Let's see if that's translated into more unnamed sources.

The first chart shows flagged articles for the 215 days before and after the Dow Jones deal closed in December of last year. The second chart shows the different propensities for the two time periods:

anony3.jpg anony4.jpg

Although it sure looks like there was a Murdoch effect, taking a closer look at the numbers gives me pause. Here's why: There was a 15 percent increase in the propensity to use anonymous sourcing after Murdoch than in the period directly before. But looking back through history, the average for the annual change in propensity between 1997 and 2007 was 11 percent. So, the before-after for Murdoch may just be showing the inherent volatility in the use of anonymous sourcing.

Now here is were things get most interesting. The following two charts plot the number of flagged stories between 1997 and 2007 for the Big Three and the propensity for them to use anonymous sourcing:

anony5.jpg anony6.jpg

There are a number of interesting things to talk about here.

First, when President Bush came into office there was talk that his would be a no-leak presidency (that's obviously not how it turned out). And there does appear to be a Bush effect, primarily for the Washington Post and the Journal with more stories using anonymous sources after 2001. For the Journal, there's likely also a post-Enron effect as firms became more hesitant to talk to reporters on the record.

Next, contrary to Clark Hoyt, it doesn't look like the Times used less anonymous sourcing after 2003, the opposite appears to be true.

And here's a possible reason: Although the Times seems to be the poster boy for the ills of anonymous sourcing, since 2003, the Grey Lady has actually been less likely to put unnamed sources into its stories than the Journal or the Post. So, in order to stay competitive in areas were the Journal or the Post has an advantage (e.g. business and politics), it would make sense for NYT to use more anonymous sourcing.

Again, let me know where I screwed up in the comments. If you've got a hankering for more media news, be sure to check out my scooptastic blog mate Jeff Bercovici.

(Full disclosure: I'm a former New York Times employee.)

Search terms used in Factiva:
"under condition of anonymity"
"insisted on anonymity"
"requested anonymity"
"declined to be identified"
"people close to"
"people who have been briefed on"
"people who asked not to be identified"
"people familiar with"