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Home > Publications > Quill > Lynn Walsh: An 'Aha Moment' on Anonymous Sources



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Thursday, April 13, 2017
Lynn Walsh: An 'Aha Moment' on Anonymous Sources

From the President

By Lynn Walsh

One of the biggest “aha moments” I’ve had since joining the national SPJ board occurred while visiting South Florida several years ago.

I was invited to speak on a panel, representing SPJ and the Code of Ethics. The purpose was to discuss journalism ethics with gaming journalists, bloggers and enthusiasts. The event was built around the “Gamergate” controversy, which involved online harassment and ethically questionable gaming reporting.

This was my first real exposure to the gaming community and my introduction to “Gamergate.” SPJ’s participation and organizational role in the event were controversial. Some national SPJ leaders did not feel it was appropriate to engage in a movement that had so much bad press. They wondered if the event could harm SPJ’s reputation.

I pushed for support of the event and participation on the panel. Why? SPJ needs to share its Code of Ethics with more than traditionally trained journalists. This event was a start. It also solidified my belief that SPJ needs to share its Code of Ethics outside of journalism: with the public, bloggers and all people sharing information.

The event solidified my belief that the public, bloggers and anyone sharing information should be introduced to SPJ’s Code of Ethics. This idea and belief became even more ingrained in me after the panel and a key moment that took me by surprise: my “aha moment.”

While discussing how journalists report information, the direction turned to the use of anonymous sources. Very quickly I realized the gamers and I had very different definitions of an anonymous source.

The consensus in the crowd was that when journalists attributed information to an anonymous source, the journalist has no idea who the anonymous source is — that sometimes journalists were taking quotes from unverified, unknown Twitter accounts and just including them in news articles.

I quickly explained that if an anonymous source is being used in a story, it is someone who the reporter and sometimes that reporter’s editor knows. They may have met before, many times, but their identity is withheld – for some reason – from the story. The source is not named because of an important reason that could deal with protecting their identity because of possible retaliation, safety concerns, etc.

When I explained this, I remember hearing so many surprised reactions from the crowd. They didn’t realize journalists knew the individuals they were citing as anonymous sources. The assumption was that neither the journalist nor the public knew who the anonymous source was, thus bringing into question information attributed to them.

The exchange made me realize how important it is for SPJ to reach out to the public about how and why journalists do their jobs. We need to explain why we share certain information but choose not to publish other information, how we report on sensitive topics and how we chose stories.

I think the easiest way to do this is by sharing and explaining our ethical code with the public.

As SPJ Ethics Committee Chair Andrew Seaman wrote last month, “the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics stresses the importance of journalists identifying their sources. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

Seaman continues and explains that “cases do exist when the importance of the information outweighs the need for journalists to identify their sources, however. Those include cases when the source may ‘face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.’ In those cases, journalists and news organizations must thoroughly explain why sources were granted anonymity.”

More importantly we need to push for more information to be told on the record and sourced to named individuals. This may mean not getting exclusive interviews or tidbits of information in certain situations, but if we continue to allow sources to talk on background and not be named, this will become the norm. It’s my opinion that the public deserves more than this, and we as journalists should work to get them what they deserve: information attributed to actual people, not agencies and not anonymous sources.

Reaching out to the public to explain journalism and what we strive for in our Code of Ethics is something I set out to do this year. What will you do to help me? ***

Lynn Walsh is 2016-17 national SPJ president. She leads the NBC7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Connect on Twitter: @LWalsh. Email

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