Readership should consider placing trust in journalism standards for anonymous sources
Lack of transparency, bad reporting and a number of circumstances contribute to the public’s diminishing trust of the media.
In spite of this, the New York Times ran a submitted piece from an anonymous senior government official vowing to “thwart” parts of President Donald Trump’s “agenda and worst inclinations.”
By doing so the NY Times has asked its readership to put their trust in them and their vetting process for anonymous sources, and we think you should too.
Granting a valuable source anonymity is not unheard of. Consider the most famous example of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970’s.
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relied on information from a source they called ‘Deep Throat’ after a break-in of the Watergate complex offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington and the unfolding of events afterwards.
Woodward and Bernstein protected ‘Deep Throat’ for 33 years until a Vanity Fair article revealed him to be Mike Felt, a former associate director for the FBI. The result of using an anonymous source with vital information eventually led to the resignation of former President Richard Nixon after exposing his administration’s inappropriate abuse of power.
The Washington Post relied on the integrity of these reporters and the source as well as put their brand and reputation on the line based on the right of the public to know. News organizations must heavily weigh and debate the importance of the public’s right to know against the the individual harm to the source in revealing their identity.
Alternatively, journalists have a responsibility to also consider the agenda of the source and their motives for requesting anonymity.
Codes of Ethics
This ethical dilemma is one journalists encounter consistently: the public’s right to know the truth versus a responsibility to minimize harm. Because of this, stated ethical practices and codes exist to guide the decision making process on reporting responsibly.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics lays out four main standards for ethical journalism: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable and Transparent.
Though minimizing harm can be applied in multiple ways to using an anonymous source, the SPJ outlines their anonymous source standards under the responsibility to seek truth and report it.
The SPJ states: “Journalists should: Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”
Other publication style guides and organization standards for dealing with anonymous very closely mirror these values such as AP Style’s guidelines which stress that the material is in a position to have this factual information that is vital to the news report. For comparison, the SPJ website provides a list of journalism ethics codes from around the world.
The NY Times Opinion Piece
The opinion piece is a unique article under which anonymity has been granted. Different media organizations follow set codes or write their own and the New York Times does not necessarily have to adhere to the ones mention, but does have its own standards of ethics. Under the AP Style publishing the opinion would not be advised simply because it is not hard news.
The New York Times prefaces the piece by stating publishing an anonymous op/ed is a “rare step.” They also opened up a form allowing readers to submit questions, comments and concerns about the piece where an editor answered some responses for clarification and transparency.
The piece was published Sept. 5 and by Sept. 6 the NY Times published a story covering how Trump’s “almost entire cabinet and leadership team…pleaded not guilty” to plans to act against him.
The article explicitly depicts the story unfolding as a result of publishing the letter as well as the exclusivity of knowledge of the author.
“The author, whose identity is known to The Times editorial page department but was not shared with the reporters who cover the White House…” the article said. “Describes him or herself as one of many senior officials in the Trump administration who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”’
The article comes at a time when the risk of using an anonymous source is often too big to take and it is worth noting the bold decision of the NY Times to move forward in doing so. Understanding the process they and other journalists go through should imply the weight and seriousness of what this high ranking government official had to say, even if it was presented under anonymity.
Consider the process journalists are supposed to take when dealing with a dilemma of this nature. We believe this gives the author some credibility if the NY Times has risked their brand and reputation to give this source a platform against their own administration.