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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Ethics Toolbox

Credibility, anonymity and the federal shield law

By Kevin Z. Smith

One of the strongest voices for the defense of a federal shield law, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced in early April that he was willing to again author a version of the Free Flow of Information Act.

Some might consider it a futile effort given that a version of a shield bill has been introduced on the Hill since 2005 with no success, albeit with some progress of acceptance.

As an executive officer of the Society of Professional Journalists the past four years, I have been one of the most ardent supporters of attempts to pass this federal legislation. As president of SPJ from 2009-10, I made five trips to Capitol Hill to advocate for its passage, eight times in all since 2007. I continue to be an outspoken critic of the bill’s opponents who labeled it a law that would undermine national security by aiding terrorists and hiding criminal activity from the public.

I still believe it’s a much-needed bill to fend off the growing trend of federal prosecutors who cast the dark specter of imprisonment and fines over news organizations that refuse to cooperate with investigations by identifying their confidential sources.

Many times in our nation’s history the public has been enlightened by great stories by American journalists who have changed the course of our society with their investigations. Such are the cases of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and steroid abuse in professional baseball. All relied on anonymous sources.

But the reality is, anonymous sources are problematic and seldom see much use outside the Washington beltway. In mainstream media and community news, it’s almost nonexistent.

There is good reason why journalists think twice before granting anonymity to sources. The largest reason, I think, is the question of credibility. Not just of the source, but for the journalist who repeatedly relies on hidden names.

When I was a reporter, I always questioned why some journalists could rarely get a story without an anonymous source and why I managed to go that route a handful of times in 20 years. Anytime a source said he wanted to be anonymous, my initial thought was “What’s the motive?” and the second thought was “Is there some other place to get this information?”

SPJ’s Code of Ethics gives an abbreviated lesson for dealing with anonymous sources. The Code says: “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to a promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”

SPJ’s new ethics book, “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for the News Media,” elaborates on the Code’s language. And, no surprise, the concerns focus on a journalist’s credibility and the news outlet’s relationship with the public.

Here is a condensed checklist for source/reporter relations:

• All else being equal, provide full identity in your news stories. The story is more credible.

• Before promising confidentiality, try to obtain the same information from sources willing to be quoted.

• Don’t let anonymous sources use the cloak of anonymity to attack other individuals or organizations.

• Make sure you understand the newsroom policies on confidentiality before promising it to sources. Professional burdens of trust expand to include the reporter, editor and sources, always with an eye to the needs of the public.

• Once you promise confidentiality, keep your promise. Ask yourself how far you and your news organization are willing to go to keep a promise. Are you willing to tell your source that he/she and you are likely to be subpoenaed in a case of libel or invasion of privacy? Are you willing to go to jail?

• Are you willing to spell out in your news stories the methods you used to gain the information from sources and why you may be protecting confidentiality?

For further consideration, the book provides policies and ethics codes of varied news organizations in dealing with anonymous sources. It’s worth the time to review each of those. (See more at SPJ.org/ethicsbook.asp.)

As we move forward in the coming year and make our wishes known on Capitol Hill for the defense of a federal shield law, it can only serve us to keep this in mind: Over the years, much good has come from reporting that relied on anonymous sources. The lack of a shield law threatens the future of stories that enlighten the public and force transparency onto government. And, when used with the highest ethical standards, the press can serve the American people, earning and expanding its credibility.

Kevin Smith is chairman of the Ethics Committee and was the 2009-10 SPJ president. He has previously served as national secretary-treasurer and Region 4 director. He was also chairman of the Ethics Committee in 1995-97 when the Code of Ethics was revised. Smith spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and is currently a journalism instructor at James Madison University. Contact him at ksmith@spj.org.

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