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Anonymous sources in Journalism

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This lesson covers whether journalists should use anonymous sources and, if so, when. Legal and ethical issues are also discussed.

This lesson covers whether journalists should use anonymous sources and, if so, when. Legal and ethical issues are also discussed.

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Anonymous sources in Journalism Anonymous sources in Journalism Presentation Transcript

  • By Prof. Mark Grabowski markgrabowski.com
  • Anonymity Abound The Internet has created an explosion of anonymous information…
  • Journalist’s dilemma • Journalists shouldn’t just print anything. SPJ Ethics Code states: “Seek the truth and report it.” • The reporter’s job is, as fully as possible, to conduct interviews and seek information on the record. • However, some people will only share information off the record. • Every good reporter wants a scoop, an exclusive story no one else has. But equally important is a reporter’s reputation. Can we trust the info? • Media needs to get facts right. Don’t want to get sued.
  • Anonymous Sources • What are they? • Should they be used? • Do’s and Don’ts • Legal considerations • Test your knowledge
  • Definition • “off-the-record” • “not for attribution” • “on background” • “on deep background” • “don’t use my name” • “double super secret background”
  • Issue • Anonymous sources, per se, aren’t bad. – Some of journalists’ best sources never appear in their stories, even as an “anonymous source” – Reporters may use anonymous tipsters to point them to public records and to on-the-record sources • The issue is quoting them in stories. – e.g., “a source who spoke on the condition of confidentiality said…”
  • Policies differ • A poll conducted by the Associated Press and the AP Managing Editors Association found that editors at about one in four newspapers say they never allow the use of anonymous sources.
  • On the other hand • Unnamed sources have played a valuable role in journalism. From the Pentagon Papers to Watergate to the Abu Ghraib scandal, granting sources anonymity has provided the public with a window to important information that might otherwise have gone unreported.
  • Then again… • Journalists and media outlets have also gotten burned by anonymous sources: – Most O.J. Simpson reporting from unnamed sources was later deemed inaccurate. – Newsweek retracted a story based upon an unnamed source about a Qur'an being flushed down a toilet that led to riots in the Middle East – The L.A. Times retracted an article that relied on anonymous sources and implicated Sean "Diddy" Combs in the beating of Tupac Shakur – Unethical journalists sometimes disguise fabrications using anonymous sources
  • Clamp down on practice • One study found that large newspapers' use of anonymous sources dropped dramatically between 2003 and 2004. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found use of anonymous sources dropped from 29 percent of all articles in 2003 to just 7 percent in 2004.
  • What do you think? • Are readers right to distrust journalism that relies on anonymous sources? • Should news organizations reduce or eliminate use of anonymous sources?
  • Ethics • SPJ’s Code of Ethics does not forbid using anonymous sources. But it does offer two guidelines: 1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability. 2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
  • How to decide • Is the information of overwhelming public concern? • There's no reason to use them when someone is attacking someone’s reputation, or speculating, or defending an institution, or even saying something completely innocuous
  • How to decide • Would speaking on the record put the source in danger? Get them fired? Risk future access? • If not, be wary because the source may have ulterior motives • SPJ’s Ethics Code warns: “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.”
  • How to decide • Is there no other way to get the essential information on the record? • Don’t use anonymous sources if you could get the same information on the record – from records or another source.
  • How to decide • Does the source have verifiable and first-hand knowledge of the story? • Even if the source cannot be named, the information must be proven true. • It's pretty tough to defend a libel lawsuit where your primary source for an allegedly defamatory statement can't be called to the stand in your defense.
  • How to decide • Are you prepared for the legal consequences? • Reporters have gone to jail in increasing numbers over the last few years to keep promises they have made to confidential sources in defiance of a court order. • Reporters have been pressured and sued for not revealing anonymous sources.
  • Legal Issues • Most states, including New York, have a “shield law” or other protections that give reporters protection against being forced to disclose confidential information or sources • But… – There is no federal law – The state laws do not provide unlimited protection
  • Legal Issues • Branzburg v. Hayes (1972) found no right to protect sources • Three-part balancing test: – Relevant – No alternative – Public interest • So, a reporter who refuses to reveal his/her source could go to jail
  • Legal Issues • If you promise a source anonymity and violate that confidentiality, you could be sued for breach of contract – See Supreme Court ruling in Cohen v Cowles (1991)
  • Some Tips • Remember your journalistic values • Know your newsroom’s policy on anonymous sources • Consult your supervisor before offering anonymity • Negotiate terms of anonymity – Protection only until gov’t subpoena – Describe source as much as possible – See SPJ Code • Explain to readers why source is anonymous • Keep your promises
  • Avoid accidental anonymity • Provide full names of sources. • Avoid things like: – “John said” – “A waitress said” • Remember: unnamed sources diminish your credibility. Avoid gratuitous use of them.