Sourcing Patterns in News Coverage of the Anthrax Attacks

March 2007 (VOL. 25, NO. 1)

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This content analysis examined attribution of 12 source types in news coverage of the 2001 anthrax attacks that appeared in 833 stories from 272 U.S. newspapers, Associated Press, National Public Radio, and four U.S. television networks. Sourcing patterns were examined across disaster phases, media types, attribution type, advice type, uncertainty factors, and explanation types. Prominent sourcing shifted from federal politicians to federal health officials after journalists began receiving tainted letters, and first responders emerged as the top source type after the attacks ended. Nearly half of all attributions were unnamed sources. Law enforcement officials were the most commonly quoted sources in stories that mentioned outrage rhetoric, speculation, hoaxes, and false alarms. The findings highlight routines that journalists use in disaster situations fraught with dread and uncertainty, as well as the types of information they seek during different phases of a crisis and by different types of sources.