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When is anonymity okay?

by on October 8, 2015

Based on our readings this week, it seems to be a big topic on when you should, and shouldn’t use anonymous sources. I was always told in journalism classes that you almost never want to have an anonymous source. Naming your sources gives your article more credibility and makes the points you are trying to make stronger. More often then not, I read articles with anonymous sources embedded into them and my question is, when is something like that okay to use?

In the UMass police CI article, the journalists used the students middle name instead of his real name in order to please his family. This anonymity is the center of the whole article so why was it okay to use? We can look at it in terms of actually telling the story. The journalists could have gone against the mothers wishes and continued to write the story with the full name risking causing harm to someone, or they could change his name and get full participation with the victims parents. They chose the second option. While having the source and the subject remain cloaked the journalists got the full story and were able to uncover something that needed to be brought to the public attention. In this case anonymity (although not ideal) did not make this piece any less impactful. When it comes down to it, it’s what you believe to be ethical. The journalists in this case felt the story will still hold the same impact with anonymity, then with revealing the students name.

Another example of anonymity is in the movie we have been watching in class. In so many cases reporters choose to protect their sources in order to get secret classified information. In this case does it still hold the same power to have an anonymous source? Yes and no. Yes because if this is a subject that is the only one willing to give you information but under the circumstance they remain anonymous then I would consider using information obtained from them. No because readers want concrete evidence if there is an issue going on with the country. Are you willing to risk the anonymity of a source to stay out of jail and ruin your credibility? Or go to jail to protect a source? It’s a very sticky situation when it comes to politics and government scandals. Anonymity can cause a big mess when the stakes are high. It has caused journalists to go to jail just protecting a source.

With stories that involve talking to a number of people about a taboo issue the best case is to interview multiple people and at least one of them will agree to be named in the article (hopefully). Anonymity is never ideal. But, if it’s the only way you can tell your story you have to ask yourself, “is it worth it, and can you back it with hard facts?” The last thing you want is to write a source with an anonymous source and find out if what they are saying is actually true. If they are lying then you’ll lose credibility and be a laughing stock in the journalism world.


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  1. stevejfox permalink

    Hi Julie —

    I don’t usually weigh in on Raz’s Ethics blog, but I will in this case.

    This technically wasn’t a case of anonymous sources. If you read the original story, you will see that we used a pseudonym instead of identifying the student. We also mention in the story that everyone involved in the story — meaning the university, the police and district attorney’s office and the family — knew who the source was, even though we protected his identity by using a pseudonym based on the family’s privacy concerns. This is an important distinction.

    We also knew that because Larry Kelley had previously published the name of the victim, that it wouldn’t take long for journalists to connect the dots and figure out the identity of the victim — which, of course, happened.

    The ethical dilemma, of course, was, do we use the pseudonym or not publish at all. In the end, as much as we as journalists hate using pseudonyms (and in this case it required a major rewrite in order to delete much of the great descriptions we had) it was an easy decision. This story had to get out and once it did, it brought about substantial change at the university.


  2. My mistake, I thought when you change a person’s name, or give the student a different alias that it was still considered to be an “anonymous: source. The mother was never named nor, were any of the friends or students. Thank you for clarifying that.

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