Journalism is a tough profession that puts you in situations where you have to think on your feet: you have to decide what your next move will be, while considering the fact that you have an obligation to your employer and the general public. One of the many tough decisions that we face is whether or not we should use anonymous sources.

The South African Press Code clearly defines the role of journalists (the media) is to serve society. They also echo the moral and ethical standards that journalists should have, especially considering the fact that we are in a position of power when it comes to reporting on news and setting agendas. “This means always striving for truth, avoiding unnecessary harm, reflecting a multiplicity of voices in our coverage of events, showing a special concern for children and other vulnerable groups, exhibiting sensitivity to the cultural customs of their readers and the subjects of their reportage, and acting independently.” (South African Press Code)

Is using anonymous sources unethical?

There is no law that prevents journalists from using anonymous sources. In chapter 1 of the South African Press Code, it says:

11.1. Protect confidential sources of information – the protection of sources is a basic principle in a democratic and free society.

In the same subsection journalists are also advised to avoid uses anonymous sources but, if they have no other choice then it’s understandable. The information should be verified without having to reveal the source’s identity. Journalists go to extraordinary lengths to protect the identity of their sources and to ensure that they do not lose their credibility as a result of revealing their sources. But, they also go to great lengths to ensure that sources are not granted anonymity willy-nilly.

Benny Gool

In the case of then Cape Times photographer, Benny Gool, he was issued with a number of section 205 subpoenas because of his refusal to hand over material that would help to solve the Rashaad Staggie lynching trial. Gool and the Cape Times were steadfast in their refusal to hand over evidence or testify in court because they realised what was at stake if they had done so. According to the Rhodes Journalism Review ( 1999) , when asked why they refused to cooperate with law officials and the attorney-general, they said:

“Yes, the media have to engage more with the broader society, but this must not be done at the cost of our independence. It must not whittle away at our hard-earned freedoms. And it must not interfere with our ability to collect information and express opinions without fear of retribution or retaliation” – Cape Times (1999)

Where do we draw the line?

Granting anonymity willy-nilly has proved problematic for a number of journalists. In the book, The News At Any Cost, a case study showed why anonymous sources are problematic. The Washington Post published a touching story by Janet Cooke in 1980 about Jimmy, an eight-year-old heroin addict. She subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for her story. Later on, it was discovered that Jimmy was a fictional character. Although in America, The Bill of Rights (section 28.2) deals with children and how, “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”   Cooke showed the downside of using confidential or anonymous sources and how desperation pushes some journalists to do unthinkable things.

Janet Cooke, author of “Jimmy’s World”… The journalism business was never the same since then.Image by The Impact

What should have been done?

In The News At Any Cost, Charlie Sieb, a former ombuds asked the editor of the Post what they would have done differently, he said he would have gone to the child’s mother and offers to pay her son’s bills to make sure he gets the treatment he needs. Sieb says, “If he had followed the human instinct and realised he was dealing with a life and not just a good front page story, he would have found the story wasn’t true”.

The spirit of Ubuntu deals with people’s rights, while other ideologies focus on individual rights. In short, this ideology deals with compassion and considering your fellow man because the consequence of our actions has a ripple effect. If the editor of the Post had thought of “Jimmy” as a drug-addicted child, he would have done more to ensure that the child got better band was rehabilitated into society.

According to the 4th Edition Journalism Ethics, the editor took a deontological (duty-bound) approach to the story. He followed Kant’s Categorical Imperative ideology, which places “duty above all”. A journalist’s duty is to report on facts and nothing else. In this ideology, the end does not justify the means.

Had the editor taken the Utilitarian approach, he would have still gotten the story but he would have done more for “Jimmy”. The angle of the story could have focused more on why an eight-year-old child was addicted to heroin, than the initial shock that an eight-year-old was doing drugs. So much good could have come from this story. Instead, getting a good front page story clouded the editor’s judgement.

For a lot of journalists in this fast-paced environment, they apply Aristotle’s Golden Mean. According to the 4th Edition Journalism Ethics, “the golden mean most often comes down to finding a balance between telling the truth and minimizing harm”.

The problem with Ubuntu and the Utilitarian approach is that more emphasis is placed on your personal morals while considering the feelings of others. This may cloud your judgement as you could become too emotionally invested in a story. Kant’s approach however does not take human life and emotions into consideration, only what is right or wrong. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is the ideal ideology to use when faced with a dilemma such as this one.

Whatever reason behind why the Post’s editor did what he did, we’ll never truly understand it unless we’re put in that same predicament and we take all the other factors such as deadlines and timeliness into consideration.


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