What’s in a name?
A Fox News reporter is fighting for the anonymity of one of her sources.
As a communications professional and former journalist, stories like these grab my attention. Yet, the buzz around the lawsuit is relatively quiet outside Colorado.
The case stems from the Colorado movie theater shooting that happened July 20, 2012. Five days later, Jana Winter broke a story about the existence of a notebook that the accused shooter sent to his psychiatrist.
The defense claims Winter’s sources violated a gag order, and therefore that source violated their client’s right to a fair trial. Winter’s lawyers argue a Colorado shield law and our First Amendment rights protect Winter and her sources. The case centers around Winter being required to testify in the shooter’s trial.
Communications experts have been arguing both sides of the issue for years. If not for confidential sources, some groundbreaking stories would never be brought to light. However, some see the use of anonymity as “lazy” or an opportunity for bad journalists to fabricate “facts.”
NPR directly addresses the topic of anonymous sources in its ethics handbook, specifically requiring its reporters to ask, “Is the source credible, reliable and knowledgeable?” It also lays down the rules: “No attacks, no disguises, no offers”.
I agree wholeheartedly with NPR’s approach. If you absolutely cannot verify the information from a named source, and can verify the credibility of the unnamed source, then the story must go on. For the sake of information sharing – truth sharing – some information must come from nameless sources.
However, the credibility of a story based completely on an unnamed source is often questioned. In our online world, not much is truly untraceable and rumors run rampant, but a good journalist will surround the information from an anonymous source with facts from verified – and named – informants.
In an affidavit, Winter stated, “If I am forced to reveal the identities of persons whom I have promised to shield from public exposure, simply put, I will be unable to function effectively in my profession, and my career will be over.”
Numerous free speech and journalism groups are standing behind Winter, including the Colorado Press Association, National Press Club and American Civil Liberties Union.
Last week a Colorado judge delayed making a decision on Jana Winter’s case until August. The judge hasn’t decided if he’ll allow the notebook as evidence yet, so he says he can’t rule yet on Winter’s case.
As someone who feels passionately about First Amendment issues, I will be watching closely to see how this plays out. In the meantime, leave a comment with your thoughts on the case and how it impacts the world of journalism.