Using Anonymous Sources: The endless nightmare

An anonymous source can be very vital to a journalist when trying to break a story. One anonymous source can lead to multiple named sources, it just requires you to always dig deeper and remain fair.
When reading print or online media, an anonymous source is hardly ever used because to avoid facing legal action. Some journalists tend to also only use anonymous sources because they are lazy to go do proper research and that is a sad reality.

According to the Press Council, in the code of ethics it states: the media shall protect confidential sources of information.

That it is a basic principle in a democratic and free society to keep your word with an anonymous source and that one should only use an anonymous source when there is no other way to deal with a story.

One should also take public interest into consideration because without that you don’t have a leg to stand on and all your work would have been in vain. When keeping a source anonymous you are not only protecting their identity but also their families identities, saving their work etc. An anonymous source can also be used again in future, if you keep your promise.

However, using named sources can give a story much more credibility. A named source is also more likely to be honest. The audience will also feel that the journalist has proper ethics when using proper sourcing otherwise they would excuse the journalist of lying if the source is anonymous. Journalists should never take information off the record without the approval of their superior and have a good understanding of the news outlets policy that they are reporting for.Remember to always question their motives before promising them to keep their identity hidden. You also have to take your own career into consideration, if you mess up people will forever hold it against you.

According to Retief (2002: 118),Well informed sources are the foundation of any journalist’s success. It goes without saying that the protection of these sources is a vital part of that success.The amount of attention that most ethical codes give to this matter testifies to this fact.

  1. For example, when the story of Zephany Nurse, the young teenager who was kidnapped as a young baby broke out a lot of speculation was used when stories were told about the teenager. In a statement by social development MEC Fritz, He explained that the ‘anonymous source’ articles only resulted in major stigma towards Zephany and made it difficult for the young girl to build up her self confidence and allow her to just move on because the media saw it fit that the majority would gain from the information but it all just wasn’t fair on Zephany.

This is explained in Utilitarianism ethics. Utilitarianism allows for decisions to happen only when it useful to other human beings on the basis of minimising harm and seeking the common good.It also explains that one should watch the consequences and choose the best decision that would effect the greatest amount of people. Utilitarianism puts the welfare of the public first, which in most cases is why journalists would ever think of using an anonymous source is because of public interest. So basically, it would make sense to double check the facts of your anonymous source before including their version of events to a story or just to find a other story to replace it until enough facts can be given.

According to article 19, a journalist can be put in a position to reveal their source when it comes to a court of law for example: to protect human life, to prevent crime from happening or for the defence of a person accused of having committed a crime. Courts are not allowed to order disclosure of a source’s identity when it is a defamation case.A journalist who refuses to give up the name of a source can be sentenced or fined only when given a fair trial and has every right to appeal to a higher court. In South Africa, journalists are conflicted with legal measures aimed at forcing disclosure, such as Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act.

In an article by Sherry Ricchiardi from the international Journalists Network (ijnet), a program by the Online News Association (ONA) offers a Build Your Own Ethics Code tool that contains specific guidance for using anonymous sources. The process focuses on a series of questions that you can use to help let you know if the anonymous source is useful:
What is the source’s reason for wanting not to be identified?

Is the information available elsewhere?

Do you trust the source?

Will the information come out soon anyhow?

Is the source eager or reluctant?

Is the source powerful or vulnerable?

Are the source and information worth going to jail for?

The notorious group called Anonymous, who leak ‘classified’ information to the public also known for their face with this exact mask in the picture.


Word count: 812


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