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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

A Source of Encouragement   

A new First Amendment Center/AJR survey finds that 69 percent of the public thinks journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential.

Related reading:   When the Post Banned Anonymous Sources

By Rachel Smolkin
     

Media types desperate for a sliver of encouraging news about public support can grasp it in the latest State of the First Amendment survey's findings about unnamed sources.

The 2005 edition of the poll, commissioned by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with AJR, found that 69 percent of Americans agree with the statement: "Journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential."

This broad support for a reporter's right to shield sources comes as protection of anonymous sources is under assault in the federal courts and as abuse of unnamed sources has fomented myriad news scandals. From the imaginary unnamed sources of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley to the lone confidential source who served up Newsweek's infamous Quran-in-the-toilet item, the press' penchant for quoting unnamed speakers has prompted much debate within the industry.

Major news organizations--including USA Today, the New York Times and the Washington Post--have tightened their anonymous sources policies. Periodic calls to pierce Washington's pervasive culture of anonymity gained steam in late April, when six Washington bureau chiefs and the president of the White House Correspondents Association met with White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan to push to limit off-the-record or background-only White House media briefings.

But even as editors try to reduce the rampant use of such sources, many journalists watched in dismay as the U.S. Supreme Court turned down an appeal from the New York Times' Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, who were ordered to testify before a grand jury investigating the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. While Time ultimately handed over Cooper's notes and Cooper agreed to testify after he said his source freed him from their confidentiality agreement, Miller refused to testify and a federal judge jailed her on July 6.

"The moral of the story is that this is one power that journalists apparently don't enjoy as a legal right but do reap the benefits of public support," says David Yalof, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut who conducted the First Amendment poll with colleague Ken Dautrich through their private firm, New England Survey Research Associates.

National Journal media columnist William Powers thinks it's "amazing that that many people are behind this principle," saying he would have guessed support would be less than 50 percent.

And Susan E. Tifft, a journalism and public policy professor at Duke University, quips: "I think if I were George Bush, I'd take that as my approval rating."

The national telephone poll was conducted between May 13 and May 23--in the midst of the Newsweek hullabaloo, which Yalof says had no significant impact on the results. The margin of error for 1,003 interviews is about 3 percent. (The bulk of the survey results, which dealt with a variety of First Amendment issues, were released June 28-- 2005 State of the First Amendment Survey. The results of four questions dealing with news media issues are being released by AJR.)

The survey offers one other encouraging finding for the media. Americans endorsed the press' watchdog role, with 74 percent agreeing with the statement: "It is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government."

But an unnerving 65 percent of those polled agreed with the statement: "The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem."

And a mere 33 percent agreed that: "Overall, the news media tries to report the news without bias." That's down 6 percentage points from last year. Among the 64 percent of Americans who disagreed with that statement, 42 percent strongly disagreed.

"The public is hearing that everything is biased; it's either one side or the other; there's no such thing as straight journalism," Tifft says.

Anti-press mantras have become the political norm. The "leadership in Washington, including the White House, but I don't just mean the White House, is very anti-press, and one of the techniques seems to be repeating over and over that the press is the problem," Tifft says, adding that the media themselves "have fallen short in some rather glaring cases."

Even public support for allowing journalists to protect unnamed sources has steadily declined, dropping 16 percentage points since the question was first posed in 1997.

But some journalists were pleasantly surprised that support had not eroded further. "On a week when the Supreme Court turned back the appeal on Miller and Cooper, I would still take some comfort that the number is as high as it is," Jim Willse, editor of Newark, New Jersey's Star-Ledger, said during the last week of June.

"It would appear the public sees some justification for having this technique in the reporter's tool kit," says Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center. But he cautions that other surveys have made clear that unnamed sources do adversely impact a story's credibility. "I interpret it as [the public] saying that it should be a tool, but it shouldn't be overused."

Geneva Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau and a former Washington Post ombudsman, has long advocated a more judicious approach to anonymous sources. "In order to protect this central tool, we've got to be more careful about using it," she says. "We've got to be more transparent about why we're using it."

Part of that transparency means taking the space to explain why a source requested anonymity, and why a reporter granted it. "And not the lame stuff we're doing," she says, like writing a source "asked that he not be named so he could be candid." A better explanation might state that someone is not authorized to speak about an issue, such as "so and so asked to have his name withheld because the Bush administration has signaled it doesn't want its members to speak about x or y."

The New York Times last year tightened its anonymous sources rule, requiring at least one editor to know the identity of every unnamed source. In May, an internal committee reported "considerable progress" from a year ago but concluded, "We must be yet stricter about anonymous sources."

In a June 23 response, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote, "A year from now, I would like reporters to feel that the use of anonymous sources is not a routine, but an exception, and that if the justification is not clear in the story they will be challenged."

USA Today requires a managing editor to approve the use of each confidential source and has curtailed the appearance of such sources by an estimated 75 percent since Editor Ken Paulson imposed the more stringent policy. (See "USA Tomorrow.")

Although Paulson tightened scrutiny of unnamed sources in the wake of the Kelley fiasco, he says he would have adopted a similar policy anyhow, based on skeptical comments he heard from hundreds of people during his seven years as executive director of the First Amendment Center. "We work in a culture in which everyone wants to go off the record all the time, and we know that readers trust us less when we do that," Paulson says.

He cites a University of Connecticut survey, conducted in March and April, in which a majority of respondents--74 percent of journalists and 89 percent of the public--said one should question the accuracy of a news story that relies on an unnamed source. (That survey also found 59 percent of the public believes journalists should keep a source's identity secret even when a court orders disclosure.)

The First Amendment Center's current director, Policinski, says the "American public still has faith in the concept of the free press; they may just have problems with parts of the press as they perceive it today."

"Efforts to be more vigilant about the accuracy of stories, to prosecute, if you will, incidents of plagiarism and falsification and the increasing attempt to greatly reduce or eliminate the use of confidential sources are all efforts that will pay off in the long run in the public's perception of the media," he says, "as painful as they are to go through in the immediate moment."


Questions from the 2005 State of the First Amendment survey specifically dealing with the news media:

Journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential.

Strongly agree 41%
Mildly agree 28%
Mildly disagree 12%
Strongly disagree 12%
Don't know/refused to answer 7%

Overall, the news media tries to report the news without bias.

Strongly agree 13%
Mildly agree 20%
Mildly disagree 22%
Strongly disagree 42%
DK/Ref. 3%

It is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government.

Strongly agree 50%
Mildly agree 24%
Mildly disagree 11%
Strongly disagree 11%
DK/Ref. 3%

Please also tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: "The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem."

Strongly agree 40%
Mildly agree 25%
Mildly disagree 20%
Strongly disagree 11%
DK/Ref. 5%