IntroductionJournalists will face many difficult ethical deliberations throughouttheir career. Dealing with sources, particularly anonymous sources is often anoccasion that many journalists will find challenging. This essay will explorethe type of ethical considerations a reporter visiting a jail in NorthernIreland during the troubles had to confront.
EthicsThe Oxford English Dictionary defines ethics as ‘the science of morals,treatise on this, moral principles or rules of conduct’ (1964). The worditself, originates from the Greek étickos meaning ‘of the morals’. Morals canbe defined as being concerned with ‘the distinction between right and wrong’. Ethicsis a method of investigating morality which allows a decision to be made whensomeone faces a certain case of moral dilemma. The case study outlined in thequestion is one of those times when a journalist is faced with a moral dilemma(Pearson, 2007).
SourcesJournalists owe a certain amount of loyalty to their source yet also oweloyalty to their audience. It is vital for journalists to provide its audiencewith enough information so they can make their own judgement regarding thereliability of a source. This is tricky business when a source wishes to remainanonymous. Every code of conduct in the UK includes clauses stressing the needfor reporters to protect anonymous sources. For example, the NUJ code of conductstates that journalists must protect the identity of a source who giveinformation in confidence. Furthermore, a journalist must resist the threat orany encouragement to distort, influence, or suppress information (www.
nuj.org.uk/about/nuj-code/,accessed 16 February 2015). There are a variety of instances where a source maywish to be anonymous. A situation where they may lose their job is often a casewhere a source may wish to remain anonymous. Confidentiality may includevoiceovers of a source to disguise their voice, the blurring of number plateson a car (Wulfemeyer, 1983). But that isless of a moral dilemma compared to a situation where a journalist isconcealing the identity of a murderer from police and a victim’s family. Thequestion offers a greater challenge to a journalist.
If journalists are to beshown as trustworthy or reliable to a reader, they should also act in the samemanner 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 asource. 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 thateasily allow a journalist to conceal a sources identity. Furthermore, it isoften stated that if a reporter promises confidentiality, they indeed muststick by it. Revealing the identity of a source is not something thatjournalists regularly do. In one notable case, Bill Goodwin won an appeal tothe European Court of Human Rights over the issue. The case strengthened theargument that the moral dilemma should remain in the hands of a reporter, notthe law.
It is argued that the law is too unwieldy a weapon to use in decisionmaking scenarios similar to the Bill Goodwin case (Keeble, 2008).In my opinion, although it is important forreporters to grant sources anonymity in certain cases, it is often importantfor a reporter to attempt to persuade a source to reveal their identity – it oftengives greater authority. A quote to keep in mind comes from Paul Lashmar, abroadcast journalist, he said ‘When I was makinga programme for Channel 4’s Dispatches on a cervical screening scandal atCanterbury, a technician who had been acting as a confidential source finallyagreed to be filmed. This gave the programme much greater authority with aninsider on the record.’ (Sternadori & Thorson, 2009).
Decision:The dilemma outlined in thecase study is not an enviable one. Having grown up in Dublin, and visitedBelfast many times I believe it further complicates my decision. However, I ultimatelywould not reveal the sources identity. When arriving at this decision I thoughtof a case when Judith Miller was defended by the New York Times. JudithMiller’s critics argue that she has gone beyond protecting a confidentialsource. They feel that she is protecting someone who may have intentionallyendangered the life of an undercover CIA agent, a violation of federal law.
The New York Times stated ‘There are timeswhen the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience. Judy haschosen such an act in honouring her promise of confidentiality to her sources.’I think it is vital for the police to notpressurise journalists to reveal the identity of their sources.
Forcingjournalists to do so may jeopardise freedom of speech and investigativejournalism. Will sources be brave enough to discuss with a reporter somethingof public interest if they know they may be easily tracked down? It isimportant for whistle-blowers to come forward, they will not do so if they knowtheir confidentiality is not guaranteed. The police should not be authorised toview a journalist’s notes or be allowed to snoop on their sources. Although itis helpful for the police, it is not good for freedom of the press. Whistle-blowersneed protection. I believe it is right that many codes of conduct clearly statethat journalist should protect confidential sources. Such a duty ensuresprofessionalism among journalists, and also helps the public to know whatjournalists themselves believe are the principles of the profession. Not onlydoes anonymity make it easier for sources to reveal important information, itmakes it simpler for reporters to do their job, and often makes it possible forthem to do their job.