On Anonymity in The Broadcaster

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By: Robert Sterner, Adviser for The Broadcaster

There are times when anonymous sources are a perfectly acceptable and ethical option for journalists.

Deciding when and how to use them requires a dedicated application of a code of ethics.  But what is the dividing line between ethical and unethical when deciding to use anonymous sources? The Society of Professional Journalists offers two statements of guidance on anonymous sources that The Broadcaster use.  The first is:

Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”

The use of an anonymous source is not intended to hide a source simply because he or she is shy or embarrassed.  Who a person is matters.  Is this source in a position of power?  Does he/she have inside information?  Knowing as much as possible about a source lends validity to the information he/she provides.

Some sources, because of the nature of their story, must remain anonymous to protect their identity.  Thus far this year we have published stories on mental and physical abuse, psychological disorders, and drug use that used anonymous sources.  We felt that their stories were important to tell, but that the source could or would feel stigmatized as a result of sharing their story.

But how does The Broadcaster staff know the information an anonymous source gives is accurate?  Again we rely on guidance from the Society of Professional Journalists:

“Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”

This touches on why The Broadcaster does not, and never will, publish articles or editorials by anonymous sources.  In the case of an editorial, if the opinion is something the author stands behind enough to write then he or she must sign his/her name.  To not sign an editorial is equivalent to trolling on the internet.  A recent psychological study found that internet “trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy.”  

Have a spine!  Speak up for what you believe in!  But be willing to stake your name on your beliefs.

The Broadcaster welcomes both guest editorials and letters to the editor, but please sign your name.

Anonymous sources, like all sources, can have a variety of motives.  As journalists, we at The Broadcaster, seek to understand the motives of our sources.  Is this source telling a reporter a piece of very private or confidential information because he/she is trying to harm someone?  Is he/she pushing an agenda?  Is what he/she says accurate?  Can it be independently verified?

Our anonymous sources remain anonymous for their protection.  It is a delicate balance to protect the source, verify the information, and deliver the reader as accurate and honest a story as we, The Broadcaster staff, are able.  

We will fall short of this lofty goal at times.  The reporters are teenagers, students.  Each day we learn and often we learn the most from our mistakes.

But always our goal is to uphold the ethical ideals of good journalism:

  1. Seek the truth and report it
  2. Minimize harm
  3. Act independently
  4. Be accountable and transparent

Do you have a topic or issue you feel passionately about?  Share your signed letter to the editor or editorial with The Broadcaster at: [email protected]  Expect to be contacted by a representative of The Broadcaster for verification.