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Ethics
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Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives
TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting
Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.

Ethics Committee chair

Andrew Seaman
Email
@andrewmseaman
Bio (click to expand) Andrew is a medical journalist for Reuters Health in New York. Before coming to Reuters Health, he was a Kaiser Media Fellow at Reuters’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covered the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In 2011, Andrew graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied investigative journalism as a Stabile Fellow and was named “Student of the Year.” Andrew also graduated with his B.A. from Wilkes University in 2011.

He’s won numerous awards throughout his short career, including being named a 2010 Tom Bigler Scholar for ethical standards in journalism, the 2009 Robert D.G. Lewis First Amendment Award, the 2009 and the Arthur H. Barlow National Student Journalist of the Year Award.


Fred Brown, vice chair
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Fred Brown is a former national president of SPJ (1997-98) and is very active on its ethics committee. He writes a column on ethics for Quill magazine and served on the committee that wrote the Society’s 1996 code of ethics.

Brown officially retired from The Denver Post in early 2002, but continues to write a Sunday editorial page column for the newspaper. He also does analysis for Denver’s NBC television station, teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver, and is a principal in Hartman & Brown, LLP, a media training and consulting firm. He has won several awards for writing and community service, including a Sigma Delta Chi Award for editorial writing in 1988. He is an Honor Alumnus of Colorado State University, a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame, and serves on the boards of directors of Colorado Public Radio, the Colorado Freedom of Information Council and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.




SPJ Ethics
Committee Members


Lauren Bartlett
E-mail

David Cohn

Elizabeth Donald
E-mail

Mike Farrell
E-mail

Carole Feldman

Paul Fletcher
E-mail

Hagit Limor
E-mail

Dana Neuts
E-mail


Chris Roberts

Alex Veeneman
E-mail

Home > Ethics > SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers > Anonymous Sources

SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers
Anonymous Sources

Few ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources. Keep your promise not to identify a source of information and it’s possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge and a jail cell. On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source and it’s just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

Anonymous sources certainly have a checkered journalistic history. None is more famous and perhaps none was more important than Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” the FBI source who helped The Washington Post unravel the White House cover-up of the Watergate break-in. And perhaps none was more infamous than those Janet Cooke invented to concoct her fictitious Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a child heroin addict.

Anonymity is the name of the Washington game. Everyone seems to be an administration or congressional source or a law enforcement or military source. Politics and ego-stroking seem to dissolve everyone into “unnamed.” A New York Times columnist arguing about a published article with three senior White House aides even referred to President Obama as one of “four senior members of the administration” in a subsequent column.

Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.

The SPJ Code of Ethics contains two pointed statements on anonymous sources:

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

The most important professional possession of journalists is credibility. If the news consumers don’t have faith that the stories they are reading or watching are accurate and fair, if they suspect information attributed to an anonymous source has been made up, then the journalists are as useful as a parka at the equator.

To protect their credibility and the credibility of their stories, reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources. If the only way to publish a story that is of importance to the audience is to use anonymous sources, the reporter owes it to the readers to identify the source as clearly as possible without pointing a figure at the person who has been granted anonymity. If the investigating police officer confirms John Doe has been arrested, the officer is a “source in the police department” and not even a pronoun should point to the gender.

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

The information-gathering business is a give-and-take practice with a lot of public officials. Some are willing to provide information only when it benefits them. When someone asks to provide information off the record, be sure the reason is not to boost her own position by undermining someone else’s, to even the score with a rival, to attack an opponent or to push a personal agenda. Media outlet practices vary, but journalists should not overlook the danger of legal problems and credibility damage from publishing anonymously sourced information that is not confirmed by public records or credible sources. Before journalists allow themselves to be used by an anonymous source they should be sure to question whether the news value warrants whatever the source hopes to accomplish.

Journalists should never take information off the record without the approval of a supervisor and an understanding of the news outlet’s policy. Some organizations do not allow anonymous sources except in the most vital news stories. Journalists also should make sure they and their source are talking about the same agreement. Does off-the-record mean the information can never be used, can be used if another source confirms the information on the record or public records substantiate, or simply the information can be used as long as the source’s name is not used (a city official, an employee of the football team, etc.) And publishing information without verification from multiple sources, even if they are all off the record, is a dangerous practice.

Agreeing not to attribute the information to the source and then breaking the promise has two negative consequences for journalists. First, it damages the credibility of the promise-breaker and the media outlet he or she works for. Others with important information may decline to provide information off or even on the record if the reporter is not trustworthy. And second, there is at least one instance in which a person lost his job because the reporter who promised him confidentiality broke it, and the unemployed source sued the newspaper and won.

The wisdom of using anonymous sources has been the subject of an ongoing debate in journalism for years. The “anonymous source tracker” at the website inkstainedwretch.com dispels any notion that anonymous sources are used rarely today. Reporters and editors must weigh the cost of relying on anonymous sources.


This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the Committee by Michael Farrell, Ph.D., director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He is a member of SPJ's Ethics Committee.

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Ethics
Ethics Home
SPJ Code of Ethics
News/Articles
Case Studies
Committee Position Papers
Ethics Answers
Ethics Hotline
Resources
Ethics Committee

Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives
TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting
Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.
 

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