A MinD in MoTown

You can call me Joe, Joe Schmo.
June 23, 2008, 3:03 pm
Filed under: News Girl

Anonymity. In journalism, anonymous sources are a pretty big deal. Several journalists – most recently and notably Judith Miller during the Valerie Plame affair – have been sent to jail for refusing to reveal their sources. And those people are journalists who take their profession very seriously, people who will do what is necessary to get the story and disseminate the news at all costs. They are individuals who, in my mind, deserve the utmost respect for staying true to the ideals set forth and necessary to the field of journalism because they understand and recognize the importance anonymity plays in telling the whole truth to the public.

Unfortunately, the public has a somewhat skewed idea of what anonymity truly means at a newspaper. Some seem to believe, wrongfully, that requesting anonymity for even the slightest comment about the most mundane topic guarantees them that ambiguity. I am sorry, but unless you are discussing town corruption or a news-breaking scandal with me, try not to waste several minutes of my time telling me your preference of generic foods over name brand items for an article about money-saving grocery tips just to end our conversation with “I don’t want my name in the paper.”

In protecting a source, there has to be a justified cause for doing so – i.e. a huge story. There is no reason that John Smith at the local park deserves anonymity for talking about playground conditions. And why is that? Because another source could likely be found. It’s not a breaking news issue by any means. Yet, so many people think that talking to a newspaper in general is enough to satisfy a journalist’s need when, in reality, your name must be attached to the comments. If you don’t want to be in the paper, just politely decline to talk to me at the onset of our conversation. Please do not waste my time discussing the issue with me only to say you would prefer your name remain a secret; I could have found someone more willing in that period of time.

For me, it becomes more of an annoyance than anything else to talk to someone who does not wish to be named, as if the individual somehow thinks that their comments are of such value that I will use them with or without their name attached. Telling me you clip coupons is not the world’s best statement … it simply isn’t. What would possibly make some random person believe their words carry such importance that I don’t need his/her name?

To write an entire article without named sources would diminish credibility, which the mainstream newspaper-reading public likely does not understand. If I wrote about any topic – from the local Board of Education to downtown sidewalk cleanliness – and failed to list the names of those I talked to, there would be no reason for my audience to believe a single word they read. As far as anyone would know, the whole story would be a contrived, imagintive work on my part. Sources, however, lend credibility to an article. They prove that so-and-so has a specific opinion about that topic and putting that name behind the comment allows for a reader to say “well, if that person sees this in a certain manner and that is his/her reasoning behind it, maybe they are right.” Even for the most general of statements, the name attached creates something more concrete, a more believable concept, and that’s something I wish the public could and would grasp when speaking to a journalist.

I’m sure that there are several individuals who, when approached by a journalist seeking a comment, do not wish to have their opinions voiced in the local paper. And perhaps – I’m being nice here – they talk to that journalist only to be polite, but upon realizing that their statements may appear on local doorsteps the following morning, they decline to reveal their name. That could be a possibility. But when it comes to anonymity, I feel as though – and this belief is following four years at a well-known university with a plethora of classes in jouralism – only special circumstances should allow for that designation. Otherwise, I’m doing little more than talking to an individual who a) has little regard for my profession, b) inevitably will waste my time, c) does not understand the meaning of anonymity or d) all of the above.

I suppose the anonymous source is just another woe of my life as a journalist. Let’s pencil that in right next to “working for pennies.”

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