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Home > SPJ News > CBS embarrassment illustrates the dangers of anonymous sources

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CBS embarrassment illustrates the dangers of anonymous sources



Irwin Gratz, SPJ President, (207) 874-6570 or
Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Committee Co-Chair, (651) 642-4437 or

INDIANAPOLIS -- Over the years CBS News has earned an enviable reputation as one of the leading news organizations in the country. However its credibility is now very much at stake.

It first broadcast and then categorically defended what we now know are suspect documents involving President Bush’s military service. We also know CBS’s source lied about the origins of the document. CBS News’ apology and admission that it could not vouch for the authenticity of the documents are welcome steps as is its announcement of an independent investigation into the whole sorry affair. There are many questions to be answered.

Working with anonymous sources is one of the most ethically challenging aspects of journalism. As a result, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics has much to say on the topic:

Seek Truth and Report It. Journalists should:
* Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.
* Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
* Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

Act Independently. Journalists should:
* Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.

Be Accountable. Journalists should:
* Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
* Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.

These ethical guidelines can help shape the questions the investigation should answer. The source was a long time critic of the president. What did CBS News know about the motives of the source? How much information did it share with its viewers about the source’s reliability?

Reports now indicate a CBS producer may have promised access to campaign officials in exchange for the documents. How big an issue is this promise of a favor? How much did CBS News do to test the accuracy of the information? ABC News reported that at least two experts told CBS News prior to the broadcast that at least one of the documents could not be authenticated. Why was this information apparently not used or shared with the public?

If CBS News is to restore its credibility the investigation must be thorough and transparent. The findings should lead to consequences and reform. The process, while painful, is essential to the long term health of the news organization.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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