Ethics at source matter

I did not imagine that my last column, “An impunity that can be countered” (Sept. 11), could be provocative. The intention was to provide a tool to deal with sources who habitually mislead reporters, and to protect journalistic credibility from the onslaught of multiple stories emanating from the corridors of power. I did not realise that a column needed caveats to mean what it intended to mean.

A section of readers, reporters, and journalism students wanted to know whether I have changed my opinion about the importance of attribution and the rules of granting anonymity in the present political climate. In my journalism classes, I often draw attention to the searing opening lines from Janet Malcolm’sThe Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The questions posed by the students were sharp and honest: how do we deal with a multiplatform media reality where no one likes to miss a story? In an opaque structure, where access has become a favour provided by those in power, what options are left for reporters to do their job ethically and in a competent manner?

When to grant anonymity

The bedrock of journalism is its role to bear witness: talking to a political source to understand Cabinet changes that are planned — why someone is preferred and another is rejected — is an important way of knowing one’s own government and the functioning of political parties. But that does not change my opinion that granting anonymity is a journalistic privilege that should be invoked sparingly and only in special unavoidable circumstances to fulfil a public interest role. Why should a statement like “rewarding performance” be published without attribution? I agree with David, a reader, who invoked the idea of caveat emptor, and shifted the responsibility to the journalist. It is important for reporters to make it clear to sources who demand anonymity that they must explain their rationale. Reporters should realise that by granting anonymity to a source, they are denying the objective space for readers to make their own informed choices — it is journalists who are deciding on behalf of readers that the information they have secured is valid, relevant, and authentic.

My premise on the use of anonymous sources is rooted in the code of the public broadcaster, NPR, which calls for a joint decision in using this device. It says: “This is not a solo decision — the editors and producers of these stories must be satisfied that the source is credible and reliable, and that there is a substantial journalistic justification for using the source’s information without attribution. This requires both deciding whether it is editorially justified to let the person speak anonymously, and being satisfied that this person is who the piece says he is and is in a position to know about what he’s revealing.” Many media scholars and editors have been stressing for years the qualitative difference between a single ‘off the record’ quote and ‘unattributable background briefing’ which usually involves a lengthy and considered statement by a source to a trusted journalist. The former is an opinion, while the latter is an explanation of the context in which decisions are being made.

The best distinctions about different types of relationships between a reporter and a source are in Norman Pearlstine’s book,Off the Record: “Editors have an obligation to know the identity of unnamed sources used in a story, so that editors and reporters can jointly assess the appropriateness of using them… That source must understand this rule.” The important question is, are reporters following this cardinal principle?

If a reporter has followed all the guidelines that govern the processes of granting anonymity to a source, and then discovers a deliberate falsehood aimed at misleading the public, then to invoke the right to out the source becomes a valid defense. Otherwise the reporter will be seen as a confidence trickster.