Journalists must make tough ethical decisions almost daily. There are lots of tools to help guide those decisions, including the Radio Television Digital News Association Code of Ethics and one from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). In addition, SPJ has long had an Ethics Hotline, which fields hundreds of questions each year.
When do I have to attribute information in a story? If a person needs to question whether they should attribute information to someone or someplace, it’s better to err on the side of caution and attribute. Attribution is crucial to all media types.
Am I allowed to cover a story about something or someone I’m affiliated with outside of my professional life? In general, journalists shouldn’t write about topics in which they have a vested interest. Instead, let someone else in the newsroom cover the story. Or, if a journalist is on the fence, they should explain their involvement in a note or somewhere in the story.
When can I grant anonymity to a source? Anonymity should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances. In general, it’s used too much in news stories. Journalists should ask sources who request anonymity about who or where else can provide the information on the record. When anonymity is granted, the terms should be spelled out about what is expected of each party.
Understanding the issues around attribution is critical in a world where so much information is shared without any sourcing at all. As journalists continue to try to stake their claims as providers of accurate information, appropriate attribution is essential to that effort. Source anonymity is related to this issue because it’s the antithesis of attribution, and it requires a tremendous amount of trust between the journalist and the source, not to mention the journalist and the audience. As the SPJ piece says, this should be reserved for “extraordinary circumstances.”
Finally, with so much more “journalism with a point of view” showing up in the media marketplace, the idea that journalists must be transparent in reporting their relationships to the people and the issues they cover is one that can serve to strengthen the credibility that we need to do our jobs. If you’re going to write about people you know or ideas or organizations for which you have passion, you have to remember to let your audiences in on it.