NYT’s use of ‘anonymity’ nearly doubled since 2007

There have been some clever applications of The New York Times’ new Chronicle tool since it was released for public use Wednesday. The tool, which allows users to examine how frequently words have appeared in the Times over the years, has been used to compare instances of the word “opera” and “hip-hop” and show when the Times’ style ruling on “illegal immigrant” changed.

But what happens when you plug terms that indicate anonymous sourcing, like “anonymity,” “anonymous” and “said a source” into the tool?

Even though “anonymity” only shows up in a small fraction of articles — about 2 percent in 2013 — use of the word has nearly doubled since 2007, the tool shows:


Plug in the phrase “sources said” and you get a similar spike after 2010:


The Times’ use of anonymous sources is a perennial topic among media critics. Times reporter Eric Scmitt told Public Editor Margaret Sullivan in 2013 that readers’ “No. 1 complaint, far and away, was anonymous sources.”

The uptick in the appearance of these words might actually just be a result of more transparency from the New York Times, said Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of corporate communications for the New York Times, in an email to Poynter. The tallies could indicate “a much greater effort” by reporters to explain when and why anonymous sources are used, she said, in keeping with guidelines set out by former executive editor Bill Keller in 2004 and 2005.

“Chronicle is a fascinating tool, but I would be very careful about reaching broad conclusions about something like this without looking much more closely at the context of the uses,” she wrote.

Note: A previous version of this story identified a New York Times reporter as Eric Schmidt advising Margaret Sullivan in 2003. In fact, his name is Eric Schmitt and he talked to Sullivan in 2013.

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  • Frank Spencer-Molloy

    Yep, use of the term “anonymous” and “anonymity” is of rather recent vintage and coincides with the advent of the practice of explaining why the source wished to remain anonymous. Previously, articles stated that the news came from a source “who didn’t wish to be identified” or said, with no elaboration, “a Justice department official said.” So this exercise proves nothing.