Anonymity and journalism have an uneasy and complex relationship. While I would say most journalists prefer to name sources in the interests of disclosure (that’s the business we’re in after all) and demonstrating they’re not beholden to any particular interests, at the same time a lot of good stories rely on anonymous tipsters or sources. For instance, political reports often quote un-named “senior government/opposition sources”. Even a community paper regularly receives anonymous tips (sometimes the person has gone to great lengths to conceal their identity and sometimes they just don’t want to be named) for a variety reasons — they fear retribution from the ratbag family down the road, they are worried about family or friends finding out, they have concerns for their livelihood. And where would the most famous story in journalism history, Watergate, be without the anonymous Deep Throat? Even in regular, everyday reporting of (often mundane) things that deal with politicians or public service bureaucrats feature anonymous people — how often have you seen “the minister’s spokesman” or “a spokeswoman for the department” quoted?
But then, my old editor would never let us publish a story that didn’t have at least one name in it, unless it was for a very good reason. The journalistic code of ethics suggests as much too, saying:
Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.
My instincts would be to agree with this. That old lady complaining about rubbish in her yard but who doesn’t want her name in the paper, how do I know she’s not really the landlord of the people she’s complaining about who’s in a dispute in the tenancy tribunal? I’m an overworked journalist who doesn’t have time to check into the background of every petty complainer. So if they’re not willing to have their name or face attached to their story, on the whole it’s just not worth it (unless, of course, it’s a real cracker of a yarn. It’s usually not.)
However, the code also says:
Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.
Which, I think, raises interesting questions about the internet. My own relationship with net-nymity has been limited. In fact, many readers would have been directed to the pseudonymous blog from the twitter account under my real name. Equally, an earlier net name I used while at uni was fairly easily linked back to my identity. And this has, largely, been something I have thought over and made conscious decisions about along the way.
When someone chooses anonymity on the internet, they have their own reasons. But when they choose that, *they* choose to be anonymous and the rest of the world, largely, has to accept it. And this causes tension with the values of the traditional media and journalists. However, I’m inclined to think if the person on the internet isn’t using their anonymity to break laws or vilify or bully others then that confidence should be accepted and respected. Even if that person has had fame thrust upon them. Those who have arrived this far from twitter will, of course, have realised I’m thinking about the now-infamous Grogs Gamut here. Enough has been written about the specifics of that case today (including by Grogs himself) that I feel there is little I can add to it. But I do think it is interesting that in what I have read of it, much has been made of the public service code of conduct yet I have seen nothing written about the journalism code of ethics. And this was a decision made by a journalist (or his editors, with whom he complied) to reveal a source. A journalist for a newspaper which is currently fighting a court battle to prevent another of its journalists from being forced to reveal a source Interesting, huh?