Journalism is based on truth and accuracy. Using unnamed sources risks both of those standards. For that reason, students should seek sources willing to speak on the record. Unnamed sources should be used sparingly and only after students evaluate how the need for the information balances with the problems such sources create.
Occasionally, a source’s physical or mental health may be jeopardized by information on the record. In this instance, journalists should take every precaution to minimize harm to the source.
Staff manual process
Editors should train staff members on how to conduct proper interviews on the record. Poor interview techniques could lead to confusion between potential sources and reporters. Staff members should always identify themselves when working on behalf of student media. Reporters should be advised to use anonymous sources rarely.
Before agreeing to do so, they should ask the following questions:
• Why does the source want to remain unnamed? Is it possible he/she would be in danger if his/her name is revealed? What other problems could occur?
• How important is the story? How important is the information provided, and is there an alternative means for gathering it? Using an unnamed source hurts credibility and could risk legal action.
• Students should consider what might happen if a court demands to know the source’s name. Most professional journalists would not reveal the name, and many have gone to jail instead of doing so. Would student reporters be willing to go that far? What legal protections exist in your state for protection of sources?
• What might the source have to gain from getting this information published? Some sources who want to be off the record have ulterior motives that could harm someone else.
• If students decide the information is vital and the source has a solid reason for remaining unnamed, who, besides the reporter, should know the identity? Many staffs decide the editor should know to assess the credibility of the source, but not the adviser in order to protect the adviser’s professional position at the school.
Legal Protections For Journalists’ Sources And Information, Student Press Law Center
Position Paper on Anonymity of Sources, Society of Professional Journalists
Use of Unnamed Sources, National Public Radio
Lesson: Exploring the Issues with Anonymous Sources, Journalism Education Association
Unnamed Sources, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee, Press Rights Minute
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