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Is it time to review staff policies on covering whistleblowers, using anonymous sources?


by Susan McNulty, CJE The Stampede and The Hoofbeat adviser J.W. Mitchell High School, Trinity, Florida

On July 25, U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talked by phone, and this call set off what is now an impeachment investigation into the U.S president by Congress.

An anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint with the intelligence inspector general Aug. 12, alleging Trump betrayed his oath of office.

Regardless of which side of the political aisle students stand, this historical moment calls for school journalism programs to revisit their staff manuals and review policies on coverage of whistleblowers and use of anonymous sources.

JEA provides multiple lessons to assist with creating staff manuals that address these issues. In fact, JEA has a whistleblower policy of its own, found here.

Whistleblower reports have been used to stop at least one school shooting, as in the case of Cedar Crest High School in Pennsylvania in 2015. Additionally, anonymous whistleblowers have exposed corrupt school principals and uncovered cheating scandals.

However, student journalists who choose to use anonymous sources do not always have the same protections as professional journalists, as in the case of Adelina Colaku at Northern Highlands Regional High School in New Jersey. In 2014, Colaku wrote a piece on the behavior of the district superintendent, and she relied on anonymous sources. It took three months of battles before her story was published.

A complete staff manual provides guidance when an anonymous source comes to the newsroom with information.

The section on anonymous sources should include a declaration of transparency, a commitment to attribute all sources whenever possible and a list of incidences and conditions upon which an anonymous source could be used.

Anonymous sources should only be considered when identifying them would result in serious reprisals. Stories which depend upon only anonymous sources should be of significance to the school community. On the JEA curriculum website, members can find several lessons and sample staff manuals. A Generic Policy Manual under the heading Newspaper/Newsmagazine Staff Manuals provides a thorough and detailed list of policies, or guidelines, for use of anonymous sources. 

Additional JEA Lessons on related topics can be found below (For some you must be a JEA member to access):

Sample staff manuals and more:
In addition to the materials listed below, JEASPRC recommended resources include Law and Ethics manual and Prior Review.

Generic policy manual

Creating a staff manual

Creating ethical models and staff manual procedures

Understanding source credibility

Exploring the issues with anonymous sources

Additional sources:

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