By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
Journalists typically call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists seeking advice about knotty ethics issues.
But not all callers are professional journalists. A lawyer called AdviceLine with a question that sometimes puzzles reporters, too: Does a journalist have a duty to inform an interviewee that his answers to questions will appear in an article, along with his name and title?
The lawyer said he was writing an article for a law review and gathering interviews as background. Part way through his research, it occurred to the lawyer that he had not told his sources that he intended to quote them in the article.
Would it be ethical, asked the lawyer, to quote his sources without their permission?
The AdviceLine ethicist saw this case as a potential dilemma in both journalism ethics and in academic ethics.
On the academic side, the advisor explained the definition of academic plagiarism, using the ideas or phrases of others without attribution. In that case, the lawyer “was certainly doing the right thing by citing his sources by name,” said the AdviceLine advisor. In academic practice, the advisor added, permission is not always required but “it would be professionally courteous to do so.”
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists team consists of two groups of advisors, including university professors who teach ethics and professional journalists. University professors answer the bulk of questions posed to AdviceLine. In some cases, like this one involving the lawyer, the ethics journalism ethicsprofessor asked a professional journalist on the team to join in answering the question.
Occasionally, journalists who call AdviceLine simply want to know how other journalists would typically handle a particular situation. In that case, it’s more a matter of established journalism practice rather than ethics.
Interviewing sources is a key skill in journalism. In part, the lawyer who called AdviceLine seemed to be asking how a professional journalist would handle the question of identifying sources.
Professional journalists generally learn to develop a clear set of ground rules for interviewing sources. One of those rules is to say immediately that everything is on the record. That should be clear at the start. If there is any hesitation about that, it should be discussed before the interview begins.
“If somebody gets a call from a reporter asking questions, it should be assumed the reason for the call is that the information is likely to be published,” said the journalist involved in this discussion. “I know it sounds like a given, but I’ve had a few cases, after an article was published, that somebody interviewed called back and complained that they did not expect to be identified or quoted. Ideally, the reason for the interview should be made clear at the outset, and maybe again at the end of the interview. The reporter could say something like, ‘I intend to identify you and intend to use your comments in a story,’ just to be perfectly clear, especially when dealing with people who are not accustomed to talking to reporters.”
A mayor or other public officials would understand why a reporter is interviewing them. So this also is a matter of sophistication. A wise, ethical reporter should be more careful when interviewing members of the public and identifying them.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.