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Journalists will face many difficult ethical deliberations throughout
their career. Dealing with sources, particularly anonymous sources is often an
occasion that many journalists will find challenging. This essay will explore
the type of ethical considerations a reporter visiting a jail in Northern
Ireland during the troubles had to confront.

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines ethics as ‘the science of morals,
treatise on this, moral principles or rules of conduct’ (1964). The word
itself, originates from the Greek étickos meaning ‘of the morals’. Morals can
be defined as being concerned with ‘the distinction between right and wrong’. Ethics
is a method of investigating morality which allows a decision to be made when
someone faces a certain case of moral dilemma. The case study outlined in the
question is one of those times when a journalist is faced with a moral dilemma
(Pearson, 2007).


Journalists owe a certain amount of loyalty to their source yet also owe
loyalty to their audience. It is vital for journalists to provide its audience
with enough information so they can make their own judgement regarding the
reliability of a source. This is tricky business when a source wishes to remain
anonymous. Every code of conduct in the UK includes clauses stressing the need
for reporters to protect anonymous sources. For example, the NUJ code of conduct
states that journalists must protect the identity of a source who give
information in confidence. Furthermore, a journalist must resist the threat or
any encouragement to distort, influence, or suppress information (,
accessed 16 February 2015). There are a variety of instances where a source may
wish to be anonymous. A situation where they may lose their job is often a case
where a source may wish to remain anonymous. Confidentiality may include
voiceovers of a source to disguise their voice, the blurring of number plates
on a car (Wulfemeyer, 1983). But that is
less of a moral dilemma compared to a situation where a journalist is
concealing the identity of a murderer from police and a victim’s family. The
question offers a greater challenge to a journalist. If journalists are to be
shown as trustworthy or reliable to a reader, they should also act in the same
manner to a source. It is important to consider the fact that in many cases,
journalists have been sent to jail for failing to reveal the identity of a
source. Is the need to stick to journalistic ethical rules worthy of jail time?
I am not so sure. Certain countries, for instance, Denmark, include laws that
easily allow a journalist to conceal a sources identity. Furthermore, it is
often stated that if a reporter promises confidentiality, they indeed must
stick by it. Revealing the identity of a source is not something that
journalists regularly do. In one notable case, Bill Goodwin won an appeal to
the European Court of Human Rights over the issue. The case strengthened the
argument that the moral dilemma should remain in the hands of a reporter, not
the law. It is argued that the law is too unwieldy a weapon to use in decision
making scenarios similar to the Bill Goodwin case (Keeble, 2008).

In my opinion, although it is important for
reporters to grant sources anonymity in certain cases, it is often important
for a reporter to attempt to persuade a source to reveal their identity – it often
gives greater authority. A quote to keep in mind comes from Paul Lashmar, a
broadcast journalist, he said ‘When I was making
a programme for Channel 4’s Dispatches on a cervical screening scandal at
Canterbury, a technician who had been acting as a confidential source finally
agreed to be filmed. This gave the programme much greater authority with an
insider on the record.’ (Sternadori & Thorson, 2009).


The dilemma outlined in the
case study is not an enviable one. Having grown up in Dublin, and visited
Belfast many times I believe it further complicates my decision. However, I ultimately
would not reveal the sources identity. When arriving at this decision I thought
of a case when Judith Miller was defended by the New York Times. Judith
Miller’s critics argue that she has gone beyond protecting a confidential
source. They feel that she is protecting someone who may have intentionally
endangered the life of an undercover CIA agent, a violation of federal law.

The New York Times stated ‘There are times
when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience. Judy has
chosen such an act in honouring her promise of confidentiality to her sources.’

I think it is vital for the police to not
pressurise journalists to reveal the identity of their sources. Forcing
journalists to do so may jeopardise freedom of speech and investigative
journalism. Will sources be brave enough to discuss with a reporter something
of public interest if they know they may be easily tracked down? It is
important for whistle-blowers to come forward, they will not do so if they know
their confidentiality is not guaranteed. The police should not be authorised to
view a journalist’s notes or be allowed to snoop on their sources. Although it
is helpful for the police, it is not good for freedom of the press. Whistle-blowers
need protection. I believe it is right that many codes of conduct clearly state
that journalist should protect confidential sources. Such a duty ensures
professionalism among journalists, and also helps the public to know what
journalists themselves believe are the principles of the profession. Not only
does anonymity make it easier for sources to reveal important information, it
makes it simpler for reporters to do their job, and often makes it possible for
them to do their job. 

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