The discreet charm of discretionary ethics

I have a few more questions about journalistic ethics.

In the case of pseudonyms (discussed infra), I see two issues, which are not at all the same:

  • 1. Should print media allow the use of pseudonyms?
  • 2. Should reporters ask a source whether the name given is that person's real name, and reflect that in the news report?
  • I would defend to the death the right to anonymity, which includes the right to use a pseudonym. This free speech principle stretches far back in this country's history -- to The Federalist Papers, which are considered by many to rank among this country's founding documents.

    However, when someone is the subject of a story as well as a news source, and that person is identified, quoted by that name, called a "spokesperson" under that name, and makes charges against persons whose identities and whereabouts are public facts, I think that the name of the source becomes a vital part of the story. If the name is not the source's real name, that should be disclosed as part of the story.

    Don't we have a right to know whether someone is being anonymous?

    This is not a legal question, but an ethical one, and for journalists it is not a new one. According to a comment in Dan Gillmor's blog the rules in this area are so strict that many newspapers insist on "a 'real' name for any published comments" before they'll even run a letter to the editor. That might be a bit harsh, as there are good reasons why a letter writer might wish to remain either anonymous or pseudonymous. But the fact of such anonymity or pseudonymity is highly relevant. Otherwise, anyone could claim to be a citizen of any country, or an official spokesman for anything, and readers would simply be left with the impression that they were.

    The following is from the Society of Professional Journalists's Code of Ethics:

  • Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
  • Always question sourcesí motives before promising anonymity.
  • It's pretty clear that at minimum, a journalist should ask whether a source's (or particularly, a spokesperson's) name is a real name.

    That's why ABC News issued an apology for running a story about a Palestinian using the pseudonym of "Abu Shahar" without bothering to tell the viewers this was a pseudonym.

    I'm wondering whether in spite of an apparently settled ethical policy, there's a sort of unofficial (but very flexible) code along the lines of "Don't ask, don't tell" (wink-wink).

    I said flexible, because it might be left up to the discretion of the individual reporter.


    I don't like the look of the word "discretion."

    It seems pretty close to a blank check -- a free invitation for individual bias. Not that bias should be made illegal or anything like that. I just don't like seeing it hidden behind meaningless, um, "standards."

    posted by Eric on 02.26.06 at 09:27 AM

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