Posted by Marissa Mumford
The Washington Post recently published the gripping struggles of a sexually assaulted war veteran. Per her request, the source is identified only by her middle name, Diana. “Diana” pretends all is well while secretly accumulating doctor’s visits and battling stress and paranoia.
Diana was viciously brutalized and hasn’t shared her story with family or friends. It isn’t the Washington Post’s job to make her pain known to the world. I understand that. Ethically, it feels right. But from a journalistic point of view, is this okay? If a prestigious news source is going to publish a lengthy piece on sexual abuse in the armed forces, shouldn’t the source be entirely verifiable?
Journalists need to be held to a high standard when it comes to unnamed sources and their responsibility is first to the reader. It is important to protect a source’s privacy. It is even more important to make sure the readers are being provided accurate and complete information.
The journalism world is one of high pressure. Reporters are required to produce interesting, accurate material that meets a plethora of expectations from editors and readers. Many a journalist has caved under such crushing weight. In fact, fabrication is far more common than we would like to admit. The infamous Janet Cooke child heroin addict story is a prime example of what can happen when journalists are not held accountable.
The Society of Professional Journalists provides two main guidelines for anonymity. While they are helpful, they are not exhaustive. Anonymity remains one of the major gray areas in journalism ethics. Another Washington Post article reported that more and more individuals are requesting anonymity for reasons that hardly seem to qualify. So what do we do? It can be difficult for journalists to maintain an ethical standard if it means passing up a potentially great story.
Social media means anyone can become a reporter. That makes the importance of true journalism even more important: if reputable news sources can’t produce stories that are verifiable and provide the whole truth, who will?
There are cases in which anonymity is mandatory, specifically if the story relays personal information that would place a source’s career, relationships, or life in jeopardy. That being said, journalists and editors must weigh the consequences of anonymity and the effect it may have on credibility and accuracy.
Have you ever used an anonymous source? Does the usage of anonymous sources make you question a publication’s credibility? What steps should be taken to assure accuracy when using an anonymous source?