Yes, an ethical journalist protects his/her sources

An anonymous reader asked why journalists protect their sources.

It’s a fair question but an easy one to answer. Part of a journalist’s role in society is accountability. When something is wrong, the journalist is supposed to raise awareness.

In order for that to work, people have to feel safe talking to journalists. A person who reports wrongdoing to a journalist could potentially face retribution, putting their job, or even their life in jeopardy. They need the assurance that a journalist will protect their identity when reporting the story.

Of course, the other side of this is abuse. A journalist can claim anything and attribute it to an anonymous source, so the journalist’s responsibility is to vet the story. The rule at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the oldest journalism school in the world, is that you need three sources. If you need to protect those sources, the editor will understand, but you will have to convince the editor that you actually talked to those sources, rather than just writing fiction.

That’s why anonymity is the exception, not the rule. Several years ago, a journalist contacted me to ask me some questions about the St. George Police Department, which was a corrupt department in a corrupt little suburb (both are now defunct) near where I was living at the time. I permitted him to quote me, and just told him I would be contacting him if the department gave me any trouble in retaliation for talking to him. The story was stronger with me standing behind my words, and we both knew it. And my life wasn’t in danger–perhaps they could target me, pull me over and write me a ticket that would cost me 50 bucks, but that would have been about the worst they could do, and it would have been newsworthy. Someone just had to have the guts to talk and let the newspaper do its job.

But when someone’s life or livelihood is at stake, the journalist’s responsibility is to not print the source’s name, and not reveal it to anyone who might ask.

So why is my questioning reader anonymous? I don’t know the person’s name and I don’t have a valid e-mail address to ask. But it’s a good question, so I went ahead and wrote the answer.

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