Americans strongly support the right of journalists to use confidential sources in news reporting, according to a new First Amendment Center national survey released Oct. 14, 2004, during the annual Associated Press Managing Editors conference in Louisville, Ky.
The national survey, conducted in the first week in October, asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed that “journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential.” Seventy-two percent agreed. Twenty-three percent disagreed. (See tables below.)
The same question was posed in the 2004 State of the First Amendment survey done by the First Amendment Center, with results released in July and August. In that survey — conducted between May 6 and June 6 — 70% of respondents agreed journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential; 25% disagreed.
“Since our annual survey was conducted, Americans have seen many news reports about government and other attempts to force journalists to divulge confidential sources, and also widespread coverage of CBS News’ flawed report — based on a confidential source — about President Bush’s military service,” said Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “We questioned whether support shown in the annual survey in the spring might have dropped by September. But the findings essentially show the same strong level in favor of use of confidential sources by reporters.”
The latest survey included two new questions about the use of confidential news sources.
“In both cases, the public — while supporting the right of journalists to use confidential sources in gathering and reporting the news — also voiced some strong cautionary views about how such unnamed sources are used,” Policinski said.
The two new questions:
- Asked if they agreed or disagreed “when a news story relies on an unnamed source, one should question the accuracy of that news story,” 86% agreed and 10% disagreed.
- Asked if “news stories that rely on unnamed sources should not be published in the first place,” respondents were less certain: 52% agreed; 44% disagreed.
Results of the new survey were presented at the APME conference today during a discussion of recent legal challenges to journalists over confidential sources. The discussion also covered the trend of judges issuing gag orders during trials and closing jury selection proceedings.
The latest survey was conducted for the First Amendment Center in the first week of October 2004 by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The national survey of 669 respondents was conducted by telephone in the first week of October 2004. The sampling error is plus-or-minus 3.7 percent. Not all responses will total 100% because of rounding to whole numbers.
The annual State of the First Amendment survey, conducted since 1997 by the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut, examines public attitudes toward freedom of speech, press, religion and the rights of assembly and petition. The survey was done this year in partnership with American Journalism Review magazine. The national survey of 1,000 respondents was conducted by telephone between May 6 and June 6, 2004. The sampling error is plus-or-minus 3%.
The nonpartisan First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government.
The First Amendment Center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Arlington, Va., is an operating program of the Freedom Forum.