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Adviser will have to OK anonymous sources,
school board cites journalism standards

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sprclogoStudent media advisers at Northern Highlands High School in New Jersey must now give prior permission for student journalists to grant anonymity to a source according to a revised policy the board of education adopted April 28.

The criteria an adviser might have to determine, according to an article at NorthJersey.com, consists of “the credibility, motivation and bias” of sources in “accordance with generally accepted journalistic standards.”

The adviser must also know the name, contact information, background and connection to the story. The NorthJersey.com report also noted the adviser, “except as required by law,” could not reveal the identity of an anonymous source to the faculty, the administration or board of education.

While the journalistic standards cited were not defined, the use of unnamed sources can raise ethical questions. Generally, it is the students who raise these questions  and make the decision whether to grant anonymity. Journalism editors granting anonymity under certain circumstances has historical precedent from Watergate to other instances where a source’s identity might need protection.

And, if student media is truly designed to be a learning experience and forum for student expression where students make all decisions of content, that should be students’ decision.

Events that led up to policy changes in student media involved the use of unnamed sources dealing with personnel issues.

Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, quoted in the NorthJersey.com story, said, “The practical result will be banning anonymous sources, particularly in stories reflecting negatively on the school district, since no employee of the school will want to come forward and say that she vouches for the credibility of a source leaking damaging information about her supervisors.”

Standard practice, LoMonte said, would not involve the adviser.

In ethical guidelines the SPRC endorses, students would make the final decisions whether to permit sources to be anonymous.

The SPRC knows of no scholastic media program in which the adviser would make that decision.

Administrators at the school and superintendent levels supported the board decision in comments, NorthJersey.com reported.

“We believe this policy and regulation fully support our school-sponsored publications, that they will continue to be recognized as award-winning models of excellence,” board of education Barbara Garand is quoted

Additional coverage of the sequence of events at Northern Highlands High School:
New Jersey adviser resigns from position after censorship controversy
Formerly censored article published in New Jersey newspaper after school board and principal give OK
New Jersey school board will vote Monday whether to uphold principal’s censorship
After stalling vote, New Jersey high school’s publication policy remains unclear

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