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Unnamed sources should be used sparingly …

Posted by on Oct 29, 2018 in Blog, Law and Ethics, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


… and only after students evaluate how the value of the information balances with the problems such sources create

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 value of 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 informationby the 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



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

Posted by on May 13, 2015 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Hazelwood, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


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, 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 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 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, 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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