“Who said that?”: anonymity and journalistic ethics

By: Kiley Roach

Since 2016, the free press has been on the defensive. They have been met with brutal, vicious attacks from the President regarding their supposed lack of credibility, an inability to disclose the truth, and a furious partisan motivation to slander him and his policies. Since the onset of this tumult, “fake news” has been a divisive issue that has garnered an unprecedented distrust in media and popular news outlets.Reporters once seen as galvanizers of the truth have been reduced, in the span of two years, to public enemy #1 by the President. The case can be made that this continuous tension between Trump and the press has led to more careful journalism, as White House Correspondent Shannon Pettypiece shared with us today. Despite all the vetting and the tiptoeing of the press in hopes of maintaining their credibility, the trapdoors of journalistic ethics have begun to open in ways unseen to the public in the past.

As a White House Correspondent for Bloomberg LP, she frequently referenced that the President’s attacks do not hinder the quality of her work or the tenacity of her questions directed to the President. Pettypiece told the crowd today, “The media is not a victim. We are here to give people accurate information. Now is the time to do our jobs better than we have ever done it before. It is imperative that we do not become the story. This is the Golden Age of journalism.” (Portions in italics have been paraphrased, but have retained the intended meaning and substance of the response).

She emphasized that journalists now have more of an incentive than ever to put high quality, fully vetted work out there due to fear that they may be discredited as perpetrators of “fake news.” However, there was one significant journalistic paradigm shift that Pettypiece did not have the chance to address in her responses today, and that is the rapid rise of anonymous reporting.

Sharon Pettypiece shares her perspective as a White House Correspondent with students at the Washington Center on January 8, 2018. (Photo by Jill Van Wyke).

Since 2016, there have been numerous high-profile stories broken to the public that have relied heavily on anonymous sources. By “heavily,” I mean that these stories would likely not exist without the information provided by this hidden source. For example, the New York Times posted an anonymous op-ed from a notorious “senior White House official” that was a fiery, explicit criticism of President Trump from the inside of his own administration.

Or, take the publication of Bob Woodward’s Fear, a book that was written as another “insider’s” critique of President Trump’s leadership style and policy decisions. The point is, anonymous reporting has gained traction as reputable journalism in an age where journalists, according to Pettypiece, are supposed to be on their best behavior at all times.

Anonymous sourcing is no small thing. After a conversation with Drake University Professor Jill Van Wyke, former Senior Editor of the Des Moines Register, it became clearly evident that news outlets are extremely particular about when, if, and how anonymous sources make their way into stories.

According to her, ethically speaking, only when a set of criteria are met can sources be cited anonymously. To name a few, there must be some greater public good that will emerge from such a story, the information must be confirmed by another source, there must be no alternative method to finding the information provided by the source, and the identity of the source must be approved by and disclosed to senior editors. All of these hoops must be cleared before a story relying on anonymous sources can be published. According to Van Wyke, even if the source proves to no longer be credible after the story has been published, their anonymity is maintained.

Despite the clear inconvenience of anonymous sourcing, it steadily risen as a reporting trend over the past two years. Ethically, journalists have an obligation to reveal their sources to the public in order to hold them accountable. If journalism is about the truth, then it ought not rely on the easy scapegoat of anonymous sources. For now, this trend could be nothing more than a brief lapse in journalistic judgement. Or, on the contrary, this style of reporting could be maintained into 2020 and beyond. Whether the public will air their grievances over the ethical violations of anonymous journalism is, for now, unclear. But from where I’m sitting, the tides of modern journalism are only beginning to shift.

 

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