Should journalists be required to identify themselves?

by Jason Preston on June 11, 2008

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, Jacques Steinberg wrote about the resurfacing of an old issue in journalism: should reporters be required to identify themselves to the sources they talk to?

In particular the article discusses Mayhill Fowler, who writes for the Huffington Post and is most notable as the source for the following recent political hot topics:

  1. Bill Clinton calling the author of a recent Vanity Fair article “sleazy” and “dishonest.”
  2. Obama claiming that some people cling to guns and religion out of bitterness.

In both of these cases Fowler did not identify herself as a journalist, and Obama’s quote came from an event to which the media were not invited.

On the one hand, these are public people, making remarks in a public forum, and in the age of the internet when anyone (including me) can publish anything on the internet, why should a reporter have to handicap themselves by letting a source know that their words could be published? Shouldn’t everyone just assume that anything could make the ticker on CNN?

On the other hand, how can any journalist establish trust and work successfully with their sources unless they identify themselves as journalists and respect the privacy of the people they rely on for information? Is it reasonable to expect that almost anyone could blog something from my twenty seconds of contact with a former President? Sure. Is it reasonable to assume that almost anyone works for a major news organization and is looking for a juicy quote? Maybe not.

I think this is part of the difference between journoblogging and all other types of blogs. Journobloggers (and to a certain extent mediabloggers) are part of the media structure in ways that the rest of us aren’t, and they should hold themselves to different standards.

But since my opinion about ethics in journalism is not the most authoritative, I got on the phone and called up my college journalism professor, Bob Sipchen, and pestered him for his opinion.

Despite the fact that he wasn’t familiar with the particulars surrounding both of the comments that Fowler reported, Sipchen answered a few of my questions about the the rules as they apply to public figures as opposed to private citizens.

“In a public setting, the default is that everything is on the record. If a public figure wants to talk off the record, they have to take the initiative to make that happen,” he told me as I tried to ignore the background noise of San Francisco (lots of sirens, in case you’re curious).

Who is a public figure? There are legal definitions already in place to deal with situations of libel and slander, and Sipchen sees no reason to reinvent those definitions.

Sipchen also added that “what [journalists] are after is the truth, and to allow for there to be discourse between journalists and subjects there are rules that have been established, and any journalist who misrepresents themselves in any way is doing the profession harm.”

Of course, grabbing an embarrassing quote from a public figure is totally different than tricking your average Jane into revealing something that they didn’t want to be widely known. Sipchen called that kind of deception on the part of a professional journalist “sleazy and ethically wrong”—and yes, he knew I was quoting him.

“You cannot treat private citizens who may not be sophisticated in the ways of the media the way you would treat a public figure. Those are two different categories in my view,” he said.

In today’s world, everyone is a citizen journalist with their own megaphone. Which raises the question of how citizens journalists are expected to act. Should we consider ourselves journalists, and self-identify when we’re looking for quotes? Or are we not required to follow those antiquated rules?

To me the answer is clear: if you’re actively looking for information or a quote to publish, on a blog or in mainstream media, you’d better let people know that’s what you’re doing. Many bloggers I know, who don’t claim to stick to any sort of journalistic standards, usually if not always check with someone to make sure quoting them is OK — in essence, we ask “is this on the record?”

If you just happen to be around when something important and newsworthy happens, that’s a completely different story.

What do you think? How should citizen journalists act? And should professional journalists use information gathered by citizen journalists if it was obtained through manipulation? Or should that be treated as evidence not admissible in the courtroom of the public eye?

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Why there is no such thing as a professional journalist anymore — Eat Sleep Publish
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