Editor’s Note: This is the final article on a series about journalism ethics and the SPJ Code of Ethics by Zach Garner, a graduate in journalism from Washington State University. He was the spring intern for SPJ Region 3 and SizingUpTheSouth.com. Garner will continue to be a contributor for this publication.
By Zach Garner, freelance journalist
I wrote an article, “Leaks: The trail of bread crumbs,” several months ago detailing the importance of leaking in our society. I had used arrested government contractor Reality Winner as a recent example at the time. The article spawned some good conversation in my immediate circle, but it was the comment left on the SPJ Region 3 Facebook post really got me thinking.
“I challenge your thought. It is journalists who criticize government’s elected and appointed leader to be transparent while holding out for their ‘anonymous’ sources or the validity to utilize ‘leaks’. Maybe true journalism today should be founded on true transparency. Maybe journalists should be held to the same accountability that they are asking for.”
Accountability and transparency are of the utmost importance in journalism. Even news organizations as renowned as CNN or NPR formally admit when they get something wrong.
CNN most recently was in the news when three of their journalists resigned following the publication of an article that used a single anonymous source.
Contrary to popular belief, anonymous sources are used as a last resort.
When gathering sources, journalists make sure that the sources understand that their names will be used to ensure credibility. What those sources may not know is that there might be backlash when you put your name in the public eye. Every story has two sides, and some people are less reasonable than others.
Our responsibility as journalists is to the truth and the people. But what happens when we endanger the people for the sake of the truth? Anonymity.
Sources are kept “anonymous” if, and only if, we feel that releasing their personal information puts that person at risk. Someone could face bodily harm, prosecution or potentially lose their job for giving up information where they are coerced or simply asked to keep secret. It is our job to be transparent, yes, but most people don’t want their lives in the center stage. Especially if it puts those people or their livelihoods at risk.
‘Full transparency’ is double-edged sword. Not releasing a source’s name bends the trust of the consumer, but releasing that information could just as easily be leading a lamb to slaughter. The decision in either case is discussed thoroughly before publishing on any digital news format.
Readers are far more likely to believe a story when I have a quote from an expert or directly from a source. So why take the risk of using an anonymous source?
The Greater Good
Sources are made anonymous when there is no other possible way to get the same information to the public.
As news professionals, we are responsible for bringing the most important stories to the public’s attention.
If we’re doing our jobs, you can trust that the information is good. We dedicate our lives to this career. (History will back me up on this someday.) We inform our readers and viewers swiftly and honestly. I like to think of working in news like establishing credit: At a certain point, we may have to point to our track record and ask our readers to have a little faith in us.
It is our trustworthy reputation and the public’s trust that allows us to provide information from a source we can’t identify.
Why would journalists jeopardize their credibility?
Trust is a two-way street, however. Who’s to say that we aren’t abusing the public’s trust for our own gain? How would they ever know?
Aside from getting the media equivalent of excommunicated, journalists gain nothing by doing this. If anything, in the long run, it will cost them credibility which, in this profession, is your lifeblood.
You’ve all heard of the boy who cried wolf.
Perhaps using anonymous sources is a fast-track to fame and fortune. After all, I can say what I please if I don’t have to actually name my source, right?
Outside of the talking heads on the evening news and the occasional Pulitzer Prize winner, there’s not exactly a red carpet for journalists in the public eye.
We aren’t in this for the fame. Unfortunately, we aren’t here for the fortune either.
A professor at Washington State informed my senior level journalism class that most students will struggle to find a job in the profession and, on average, will make just over $40,000 a year or less depending upon where you live in the country. By my senior year, I did some quick math on my projected pay grade compared to my student debt and started actively looking for a hybrid car. Or a bike.
A 2016 Nieman Lab report states that only 27,300 work at U.S. dailies with 4,000 working for national titles, leaving just 23,000 or so to cover the rest of the U.S. “The size of the local press has declined by half.”
There were 54,400 broadcast journalists numbered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014 with a projected decline of nine percent by 2024. We are talking about losing 4800 journalists.
So why do we do it, then? Why would anyone go into a business that doesn’t offer much money, public fandom or even recognition?
On top of that, why would we risk our careers by using anonymous sources?
Because we believe in it.
Believing in journalism
“You get to share stories and you get to see things through someone else’s eyes every day,” New York Times’ Hector Tobar in his Op-Ed, “Who’d be a journalist?”
We believe in the process. Gathering sources, compiling data and chasing the story to find the truth. We believe that the people deserve to know that truth in its entirety, not just the portions someone else deems fit. We believe that keeping citizens informed is a civic duty.
Most importantly, we believe that this is a team effort.
The media depends upon its consumers to stay alive and the consumers depend on the media to understand what’s happening in the world.
Anonymous sources are used in the media, yes, but it is not done in a maniacal way. Sources are left anonymous only after all resources have been exhausted or the source faces greater consequences that go above and beyond their civic duty.
Journalists are here to serve you — the public — and we have done that faithfully for years. What we ask now is the same thing we’ve always asked for: the public’s trust.
Having said that, tips are more than welcome.