Who knew dealing with sorority members would be such a thankless and frustrating assignment!?!
Just ask our news staff, who had the misfortune of dealing with some petulant sorority members, who didn’t wish to reveal the name of the sorority where H1N1 flu has claimed a couple of victims.
We allowed at least one of the members to remain anonymous, citing her wish “to protect her sorority’s image.” Let me repeat: We ALLOWED her to do that. In other words, it isn’t our obligation to protect her identity, especially when the information we got from her is available through others and isn’t in ANY WAY derogatory. Simply implying that members of Sigma Kappa have normal immune systems that succumb to viruses that are spread through everyday contact is in no way damaging to the reputation of the sorority.
We should not have allowed this member to remain anonymous. If she refused to speak on the record, we should have thanked her and moved on to another source. I have two primary concerns about allowing her to remain anonymous in this situation:
#1 It creates the perception that we will grant anonymity, risking our own credibility, if we are so much as asked nicely. The bar for granting anonymity should be very high — in cases in which a source risks his/her personal safety, freedom, well being, job/livelihood, or when the source is a victim of a taboo crime or condition where anonymity protects one’s dignity (i.e. — sexual assault, certain mental illnesses, ongoing drug addiction, etc.).
Such instances are rare. Some examples would include: sources who use drugs, who provide an inside look at drug culture or related issues, as their safety and freedom is at stake if we reveal their identities; sources who have been sexually abused and wish to publicize the issue while also protecting their privacy; a source who blows the whistle on unsafe or illegal practices at a company or organization; a person who suffers with paranoid schizophrenia who shares his story of a new drug used to treat the illness, but who fears losing his job if his condition is revealed.
In any case, these choices should be made in consultation with one’s editor, who should know the source’s identity and the reasons for a source’s anonymity request before deciding whether to grant it.
#2 It can suggest lazy reporting. In other words, it can lead a reader to believe that instead of putting in the time and effort to find a source who would go on the record — or a document to substantiate a claim — we simply relied on the first person we spoke to, even though that person wouldn’t go on the record.
Some other troubling aspects of this story are that the president of this sorority complained that a reporter contacted her parents to get her contact information, and that we knocked on the door of the sorority house and talked to “her girls” without the president’s permission.
Oh, where to begin… *sigh*
- Anyone whose number or e-mail address is listed in a public directory, such as a printed phone book or online, is fair game to receive a phone call or e-mail. They do not have to answer, but we are entitled to call.
- With almost no exceptions, any person has the right to knock on anyone’s door for the purpose of asking them a question, especially when the person is a reporter seeking information in the public interest. The person who lives there has a right not to comment, and not to answer the door. Exceptions to this rule are when property is posted “no trespassing” or “no soliciting.” (Or if there’s a big mean dog guarding the property.) And even then, it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Obviously, a court can order specific people to stay a certain distance away from another specific person, but hopefully no one on our staff will be impacted by such an order.
- Sorority members on this campus are grown WOMEN, not girls, and they do not BELONG to anyone. They have the same First Amendment rights to speak as any American. They may have agreed to abide by certain sorority rules regarding speaking to the press, but that is 100 percent NOT our concern. We have the right to ask them questions. If they choose, they may answer them. But we are not obligated to avoid talking to them (or athletes or members of other organizations, for that matter).
So, as you can see, this is a sticky wicket of multiple issues that we need to keep in mind. But, in general, remember that you have the RIGHT to contact any source you wish. You have the RIGHT, once you contact a source, to ask any question you like. The source has the right NOT to answer the phone or the door or your questions.
If we grant anonymity to a source who answers our questions, we have an obligation to defend that choice to our skeptical readers because we are agreeing to substitute our own credibility for our source’s. We are saying, “Trust us, this is legit.” That’s a very risky choice that should not be made lightly.
Finally, if we agree to go off the record to get information without attribution, we need to establish with the source the EXACT moment that the interview goes off the record, and the exact moment that it goes back on the record. An interview is presumed to be ON the record, unless otherwise agreed. In other words, a source can’t give you information and then say, “Oh, that wasn’t meant to be on the record,” or “Oh, I didn’t know you were attributing this to me!”
These are critical issues for the staff to understand. Please let me know if you are unclear on a situation.