ONLINE JOURNALISM ETHICS

Anonymity of Sources

by Kendyl Salcito

Deep Throat. The pseudonym instantly conjures images of Hollywood-style reporting prowess, government scandal, and journalistic tenacity. Watergate’s star whistle-blower is the world’s most famous anonymous source and somewhat of a watershed in the proliferation of anonymous sources in journalism. Since Woodward and Bernstein’s history-changing story, anonymous sources have woven themselves into every type and every level of journalism.

 
Anti-globalisation protest at Sydney Opera House. Photo by Aaron Booth

But when huge stories are broken that rely on nameless sources, issues in credibility and legality arise every time. The issues extend beyond the reporters and their papers to the news media itself. Anonymous sources have helped journalists catch some of the biggest stories in news (especially in government), but they have also been responsible for some of the greatest fumbles.

Since the 1980s, complaints have mounted over the abuse of anonymity in the mainstream press. Some “anonymous sources” were unable to verify claims, uninterested in the truth, or dedicated to the demise of an official. In some cases, the sources did not exist at all.

The list of journalists who have abused anonymity is neither short nor undistinguished. Pulitzer Prize winners and “star” foreign correspondents from a variety of internationally renowned publications wrongly used unreachable, anonymous, or non-existent sources. (Brad Evanston, Jack Kelley, Jayson Blair, Janet Cook, Christopher Newton, and Judith Miller to name just a few). Too often, anonymity is a shield behind which “sources” hide to take “cheap shots” at their political rivals or to manipulate journalists.

Most newsrooms dictate that the claims of anonymous sources should be substantiated by at least one other source, but in the rush to beat the competition, journalists have ignored those newsroom rules. (See: CBS Rathergate scandal, Monica Lewinsky scandal, John Kerry affair scandal).

There are very valid reasons for cloaking sources in anonymity. Some sources face legal retribution for sharing information with reporters, some put their lives at risk to tell their stories. But these individuals cannot be exempted from newsroom rules requiring verification, especially not in the name of rush. The race to break stories has proven tremendously problematic for newsrooms using anonymous sources in the Internet age, because newsrooms are no longer competing with other news sources – they are competing with Matt Drudge and a bevy of bloggers. By and large, bloggers don’t rely on credibility to maintain their livelihood. Matt Drudge figures that his stories are correct about “80 per cent” of the time. Journalists are required to be more accurate than that, because credibility is the foundation of their profession. If readers and viewers don’t trust the news, they go elsewhere for information – and they have a wealth of alternatives in the era of cable, satellite, and Internet.

Anonymity infringements

Coincidentally, at the same that time the demand for transparency from journalists is paramount, news consumers themselves have begun to lose their own anonymity. Computer users, who once felt safe and isolated behind their computer screens, are finding that they are being “watched”. In the summer of 2006, AOL released a list of almost 700,000 users’ search queries to the public. The list spawned some interesting debates about privacy and an amusing analysis by Paul Boutin of Slate.com entitled “You are what you search.”

But something more intimately involved with journalism happened. Individuals became sources in stories simply by virtue of the Internet queries they typed into the search box. The New York Times tracked down Searcher No. 4417749 as Thelma Arnold in Lilburn, Georgia. “It did not take much investigating” to find her, the Times article reads. Anonymity down the drain.

Arnold was “shocked” to see her online activities become fodder for public discourse, but her searches were relatively innocent. Some of the other 658,000 users searched for "you're pregnant he doesn't want the baby," “depression and medial leave,” and “how to kill oneself by natural gas.” Would the New York Times’ decision have been less ethical if they had tracked down “you’re pregnant and he doesn’t want the baby” instead of Arnold? Should journalists be comfortable with the amount of information they can gather on individuals completely without their knowing? Is it just reporting? After all, reporters have long been digging up dirt on sources before actually confronting them with questions. Is it somehow different now that those sources are accidental?

Spam-trackers

Anonymity infringements extend beyond AOL’s ill-thought-out data release. When you write an email from a web-based address about hiking, all the advertisements on the right column of the page are suddenly geared towards the Sierra Club. When you Google-search "Afghanistan", a list of non-profits looking for your help in the Middle East presents itself in the right column. Many of us are unfazed by the ease with which our cyber-movements can be tracked. Journalism wanders into controversial territory, however, when it follows the path of advertisers, tracking Internet users’ most frequently viewed websites and tailoring “newspapers” to individuals.

Findory is one of the more intriguing personalized newspapers because of its means of personalization. In the words of its founder and CEO, Greg Linden: “Findory learns what you like and then arranges itself to match your interests.” Though the Findory homepage boasts that the reader never has to give personal information, readers inadvertently give information just by clicking on links.

Aside from the ethically questionable tracking of readers’ e-news surfing behaviour, newsmakers should perhaps be wary of creating a service of hyper-selection. It may be self-defeating for news providers to turn readers into their own gatekeepers. In addition, it appears to go against the very “purpose of journalism” by the standards of Kovach and Rosentiel, co-authors of Elements of Journalism.

According to their text: "The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing." Who gets to decide what it takes to self-govern? News editors used to assume that responsibility, choosing what stories to publish and what issues to feature on A1. Editors used to provide all the news they deemed necessary, even if they knew their readership would not necessarily be interested. People self-selected, skimming over stories that did not interest them, but that has changed. By blanking out a large portion of the headlines, allowing readers to limit what type of news they want to read, are we risking closing certain doors to our readers? The news we want to read is not necessarily all the news we ought to read.

Useful Links

A Gelf Magazine article by Giovanni Rodriguez, executive vice president at Eastwick Communications, regarding the conflict between transparency and anonymity
http://www.gelfmagazine.com/mt/archives/is_it_cool_to_be_anonymous.html

Bob Woodward, Jack Nelson, and Lanny Davis on anonymous sources
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/july-dec98/sources_9-30.html

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