Media Ethics: believe it or not, they exist

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.

3 thoughts on “Media Ethics: believe it or not, they exist

  1. Excellent inside info. I enjoyed the link to the LoCo piece on the Sheriff’s social media edits. I’m in accord with how the ONA and many others handle anonymous sources. Your technique of advising wannabe anons that anonymity is relatively impossible in a county this size is dead on.
    With regards to political engagement, my good friend is the “Government Watchdog Reporter” for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She goes completely Ben Bradlee on the question of political involvement. No party affiliation. No joining groups that would compromise her integrity (via conflict of interest) as a government watchdog reporter.
    More on Ben Bradlee, the legendary Watergate editor, here:
    Thanks for your informed, insightful post, Freddy.


  2. I enjoyed your post because it of the outside content you provide but you also state “you try to stay away from being outwardly vocal about your political affiliations”, which is 100% true. Yet, isn’t everything political therefore it backlashes back on us. But anyways, good point addressing “if you can stay off social media” because our society now is insane. Great job!

    -Brenda Sanchez

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Freddy,

    I enjoyed reading this, especially the first part on anonymous sources (given that we’ve been talking about this for Osprey). I wrote about anonymous sourcing in my post as well, but now I feel like I need to go back and rewrite it all, because I didn’t even include a mention of the difficulty of actually providing anonymity! Promising to not use someone’s name or photo is one thing, but actually achieving anonymity is another.

    Your second part on avoiding outward political opinions was interesting. I feel like many reporters these days reveal clear political inclinations, and it’s just up to the reader to either trust them or ignore them. While you may be right that the public might not always want politically vocal reporters, I think we would do well to still disclose political inclinations for the purpose of transparency.

    Liked by 1 person

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