According to a Pew Research Center analysis of media coverage of the first 60 days of government, about one in ten news stories about Joe Biden’s early days as president cited an anonymous or unnamed source. And less than 1% of the stories were based entirely on anonymous sources.
Overall, 11% of news about Biden’s government during his first two months in office was from at least one anonymous source, according to the analysis, which examined articles from 25 major national newspaper websites, radio, cable and network shows and websites. and digital media January 21 to March 21, 2021. The findings are part of a wider content analysis by the Pew Research Center on early Biden reporting and come amid debates in the news industry about the use of anonymous sources.
News agencies with a right-wing audience were less likely to include anonymous sources in their coverage than other media outlets. Only 5% of their stories used such sources, compared to 12% of stories in mixed-use outlets and 13% in left-leaning outlets. (Read more about the news outlets included in this analysis and how we classified the ideological makeup of their audiences here.)
This analysis of anonymous source usage in coverage of the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency builds on an April 2021 report by the Pew Research Center that examined the broader media coverage of the new administration and the perception of that coverage by Americans were.
The analysis of the media content in this study is based on a selection of media coverage on weekdays collected from January 21 to March 21, 2021. Stories were collected from television, radio, digital and print media and coded for this project by a team of nine specially trained programmers.
Part of this analysis examines the existence of anonymous sources that are cited in every news story that is evaluated. The quotations included direct or indirect quotations, interviews, attributions or references that accompany factual information. Within each story, a source type was coded only once, even if it was cited repeatedly. For more information on content analysis, see the methodology.
To investigate Americans’ attitudes towards anonymous sources, we surveyed 10,300 U.S. adults from February 18 to March 2, 2020, nationally, at random, from residential addresses. Recruiting our panelists over the phone or email ensures that almost all U.S. adults have a chance to choose. This gives us the assurance that each sample can represent the entire population (see our Methods 101 explanatory note on the random sample). To further ensure that each poll reflects a balanced cross-section of the nation, the data is weighted to match the US adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, party affiliation, education, and other categories. Read more about the methodology of ATP.
Here are the questions that were used for this report, along with the answers and methodology.
This is the latest addition to the Pew Research Center’s ongoing survey of the State of News, Information and Journalism in the Digital Age, a research program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
One concern about anonymous sources is that if you are speaking to someone under the guise of anonymity, it is more likely that a source will say something negative.
When it comes to assessments by the Biden government, news reports citing anonymous sources were modestly more negative than the broader sample of stories examined by the center.
Of these anonymous-source stories, 38% gave a negative rating, while 23% had a positive rating and 39% had neither. By comparison, of all of the Biden stories investigated in the early days of government, 23% had a positive rating, 32% a negative rating, and 45% had none. (In this study, researchers analyzed the statements in a story to determine how the article assessed the words or actions of Biden and his government. Stories were coded as positive if they contained at least twice as many positive statements as negative; they were coded negative when the opposite was the case. If neither threshold was met, the stories were considered neither positive nor negative. The full methodology can be read here.)
Stories from anonymous sources during the first two months in office in the Biden government were most likely to revolve around economics and immigration: 21% of stories drawn from at least one anonymous source were about any topic. The proportion was lower for stories related to the presidential nomination (15%), health care (8%), and government political skills (5%).
Public wary of using anonymous sources
In a Pew Research Center poll in early 2020, most Americans said they see some value in using anonymous sources, but only to a limited extent. About two in ten adults in the US (18%) said the use of such sources was never acceptable, and 15% said it was always acceptable, while the majority (67%) said anonymous sources were in ” Special cases “appropriate.
In this survey, 68% of Americans said that anonymous sources in a story have a large (21%) or some (47%) influence on how they rate the credibility of a story.
Many journalists argue that the use of anonymous sources can sometimes be essential and necessary, especially in investigative journalism. But many in the industry share public concern about when it is warranted to use such sources, and many media organizations have established standards and rules about this.
Note: Here are the questions used for this report along with the answers and methodology.
Mark Jurkowitz is an American News Pathways writer and former associate director of journalism research. Maya Khuzam is a research fellow with a focus on journalism research at the Pew Research Center.