Journalism and anonymity


I spotted this interesting piece by Dan Kennedy featured in The Guardian’s CiF pages today. He was discussing a recent article in the WSJ by the New York Times’ David Carr that used several anonymous sources and reporters, which had led Dan Gillmor and others to cry out in protest.

In the West, as Kennedy reminds us, the rules are pretty clear:

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics says we should “Identify sources whenever feasible” and “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.”

But, he goes on to argue,

anonymous quotes are like any other tool. When abused, they can turn journalism’s purpose on its head, leading us to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Used properly, though, they can help journalists accomplish their main goal, as explained in the preamble to the aforementioned code of ethics – to seek out and tell the truth.

The discussion resonated with me because, in my latest piece for Shanghai Daily, the majority of my sources wished to remain anonymous. My subject matter was pretty innocuous: I was speaking to foreign students in the city to see how they fared coming from the West to the intense world of the middle kingdom. Perhaps they preferred anonymity because many of their comments were ‘negative’ – several lamented the total lack of administrative efficiency, poor teaching quality and impoliteness. However, nothing that was published was pushing the envelope, or would warrant the interviewees’ being chased out of China with sticks. Still, they had a right to remain anonymous.

Being a Western reporter in China is like treading on eggshells and taking stabs in the proverbial dark with what I can or can’t print. Grappling with the fundamental need to get the truth out is, obviously, that much more frustrating. But I was only too surprised when a colleague encouraged me to be more candid.

Reporting in the Chinese media landscape also often means our sources prefer anonymity. But, as Kennedy reminds us, as long as we fulfil our role in seeking and revealing the truth, what does it matter?

In terms of allowing for more candour and less backlash, China’s media reform is slow and the road is long. In honesty, it frustrated me that several of my sources preferred anonymity, but such frustrations can often be an exciting part of the unfolding process.


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