One of the main ways journalists gain credibility is by quoting accurate sources and statistics. They go out and find the experts who know best. They go out and find the people with first-hand experience. They find the studies and reports that are not widely known and ask questions about the their veracity.
Well that happens in a perfect world. We do not live in a perfect world and there is make gray area when it comes to reporting, especially reporting on deadline. Reporters should not throw the aforementioned guidelines listed above to the wind, but they should work within reason with them.
Obviously in small-town Humboldt it is hard to find experts on convoluted topics like money laundering or even free speech law (I had to call the ACLU in Sacramento for this story).
Sourcing is a tricky subject because not only are you, as the reporter, supposed to find the very best people to talk to, you must get them “on the record.” Anonymous sourcing seems to be in vogue right now in many national news services. This can be problematic because it makes the reader put a whole lot of trust in not only the news institution, but also the reporter.
The Online News Association has a set guideline for reporters when it comes to uses anonymous sources. “We ask sources who don’t want to speak for the record if they can provide documentation of what they tell us, or if they can refer us to other sources who might speak for the record or provide documentation,” their guidelines read.
While this may work for them, it is different in practice. In small towns even the hint of knowledge of something can tip off law enforcement or employers to the anonymous source. Because of this, I am willing to initially grant anonymity to a source, but work them diligently to go on the record. I remind them that there is no guarantee that their identity will remain anonymous given the way small towns work, but I do promise them that I will not reveal their identity.
Another key part to media ethics to consider from the ONA guidelines is Political Activity by Staff. The ONA guidelines state: “We encourage disclosure statements by individual staff members (for organizations that allow allow political involvement.)”
This also works in theory and actually pretty well in practice too—if you can stay off of social media :). I think it is important that as a reporter, you try to stay away from being outwardly vocal about your political affiliations. I think that although it is popular to be extremely critical of the people in power now, that will soon go out of fashion and the public will want a reporting staff that is not so outwardly vocal about their political opinions.