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Evaluating the use of unnamed sources


Part of  JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission’s Constitution Day lessons and activity package:


For any journalist, the use of anonymous sources creates a true predicament—one in which the newspaper’s credibility is on the line, and the reporter takes full responsibility for the authenticity and accuracy of whatever the anonymous source says.

This is a difficult and precarious situation to be in, and it is one all student publications should enter knowing the possibilities.

Primary Common Core: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7

Secondary Common Core Standard(s) Addressed: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8

21st Century Skills Incorporated: Communication, collaboration critical thinking

Supplies, Technology, Other Materials Needed: Handouts, online resources, computers and recording tools

Length of the Lesson: 125 minutes (3 class periods)

Evaluation tools: Student created products and application

Appropriate for Grades: 9-12

Created by: John Bowen, MJE

Brief description of lesson:

Students will examine the positive and negative potential in the use of anonymous sources, participate in activities examining the roles of anonymous sources and develop policies to guide their future use in local student media.

Lesson details:
In the commercial media as well as in scholastic media, there continues to be much discussion over the value – and danger – of using anonymous sources.

Especially in scholastic media – print and digital – student journalists need to consider the plusses and minuses of their choices, evaluating each as they design policies for each of their student publications.

Day 1:
Raise the issue of anonymous sources by discussing with students the ethical, legal and journalistic issues and principles of one or more situations where journalists had to decide whether to use anonymous sources.

Such situations could include:
• A current news event or issue
• A brief look at Watergate
• “Lurking in the Shadows”:
• Examine this article’s use of sources:
• Examine an article of your finding that used anonymous sources:

Discussion questions could include:
• Whether students feel use of anonymous sources is justified and why or why not
• Whether it could depend on the situation or topics, and why or why not
• Whether there is any difference between their use depending on the medium involved – print, online, other; commercial or scholastic; newsmedia or other types, like magazine or yearbook
• How do you know when using an anonymous source is appropriate and/or justified? What ethical, legal or journalistic principles help guide your decision?
• Does the article have credibility?

This article by HL Hall could help guide your discussion.

Depending on your story situation, these questions might also be factors and need to be addressed:
• When (or if) should names of victims be used? Another question here is whether to use alleged perpetrator names (rape victims and alleged attackers, for example).
• Should reporters use the names of those who say they have committed illegal behavior?
• Should information be used from social media sites without verification, even if anonymously?

Specific questions students should consider could include:
• Is the story crucial to the public?
• Is the information this source will provide crucial to the story?
• Can the information be corroborated?
• Do you trust the source? Why?
• Is there any other way to get the story?
• Does this source have first-hand knowledge of what he or she is describing?
• Can you report how the source knows the information?
• Does the source benefit from your publication of the story? Who else might benefit, lose?
• Would the source be harmed by publication or his or her name? Can your make that clear to the audience?

Have the students discuss these and other issues for the rest of the class period in small groups, trying to reach a decision in the group. Each group would note its answers and rationale for the next day’s discussion. Each group should prepare a short presentation on their decision.

For homework, give students your choice of the following resources:
• Anonymous sources
• NPR anonymous sourcing guidelines
• SPJ ethics committee position papers on anonymous sources
• Anonymous sources (multiple posts)
• Creating ethical bridges from journalism to digital news–Digital-News.aspx

Have students be ready to discuss these situations after they made their group presentations. Did the resources change their minds or raise other considerations?

Day 2:
This part of the activity is primarily for discussion of each group’s small group decisions, first, and then for additional discussion on additional issues the resources presented.

At some point, when discussions have covered most of the issues, raise the next step in the lesson: development of policy(ies) for student media about the use of anonymous sources.

Day 3:
The assignment for Day 3, then, will be for students to assemble arguments for and against use of anonymous sources:
• For or against them
• For or against them depending on topic or situation of the students’ choice
• Other choices

Students might also examine policies of commercial media or other student media in making their decisions.

By the end of day 3, students should have created and agreed on a policy for each student media. Decisions can be made, at your and their choice, either by the whole group or smaller groups chosen by the students

Leave time either in day 3 or in additional time, for presentation to the whole class. Results of the activity could also be part of a presentation on your student media policies to various school or community groups, including administrators as you try to help them understand student decision-making processes.

Resources for anonymous sources
• Welcome to the sausage factory
• Anonymous sources
• NPR anonymous sourcing guidelines
• SPJ ethics committee position papers on anonymous sources
• Are you really willing to go to jail over your anonymous source?
• Talk to the newsroom: the use of anonymous sources
• Anonymous sources (multiple posts)
• Confidential source controversy and more
• Creating ethical bridges from journalism to digital news–Digital-News.asp

Numerous additional resources exist simply by searching “use of anonymous sources” including pros and cons from major media outlets.

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