Critical Thinking: Should Newspapers Ever Relax Ethical Standards?
Posted: 7/8/2013  |  By: Nu Yang
Q: As newspapers compete against bloggers and online publications to break news, should certain ethical standards be more relaxed (i.e. using anonymous sources)?


Valerie Rock, 22, class of 2013, Kansas State University
Rock graduated in May with a bachelor of arts in advertising and digital journalism. She has experience producing and managing content across platforms, including print, video, audio, and Web. She has worked with her campus newspaper The Collegian, radio station The Wildcat 91.9, and TV broadcast station Wildcat Watch. She was recently inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. 

A: Newspapers are competing with bloggers and other online publications, but this should not necessarily mean a lapse in ethical standards just to break news faster. Although it’s hard for newspapers to update as often as online outlets, that facet could actually help them. Online publications often rush to be the first site to break a story, and then facts sometimes go unchecked. In today’s world, things get passed along easily with the click of a button. 

Newspapers as institutions shouldn’t ignore the digital technology at their disposal. They should utilize them to their advantage. However, the traditional ethical values of journalism, such as double checking accuracy, writing from a neutral position, and keeping sources confidential, are the pillars of news gathering and sharing.  

This is where ethics come in. How can newspapers sacrifice moral obligations purely to keep up with an ever-changing technological system? Something needs to remain constant in order to give journalists an anchor to hold on to. There is no denying that news gathering has changed dramatically over the past few years, and that it will continue to do so in the following years.  

Aly Colón from the Poynter Institute argued that instead of focusing on what methods are appropriate to utilize, news organizations “should remember that we will be judged by the kind of character we display in the work we do. The more transparent we are about who we are and what we do, the easier we make it for our news consumers to make up their own minds about the value we offer,” (Colón, 2011). Newspapers should keep this ethically-driven thought in mind when deciding how to adapt their personal codes of ethics.  

Although the way news is presented is constantly evolving, it’s important for newspapers and similar publications to remember that upholding a solid core of ethics will provide a structured guide for their journalists to follow even as the times change.           


Annette M. Schulte, 45, managing editor, Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette
Schulte has been with the Gazette for 20 years. She started as nightside copy editor and worked her way up through various roles, including assistant Sunday editor, features editor, and a short R&D stint as content ninja. She is a board member of the Iowa Newspaper Foundation and the Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa student newspaper.  

A: Competition among news platforms is not reason enough to relax policies on anonymous sources. Stick with avoiding anonymous sources or using them only as a last resort. I’ll quote Gazette policy, which does a nice job of making the case with clarity: 

“A newspaper risks its credibility each time it bases a news report on the word of unnamed sources. Readers can’t independently evaluate the veracity of unidentified sources. Stories may lose their vitality and punch because they substitute faceless ‘sources’ for real subjects with real problems and questions. And when we don’t name our sources, we leave room for our readers to wonder if we just made the whole thing up.” 

Ideally, a reporter uses an anonymous source to lead to other sources, be it a person or documents that can be named in print. In less than ideal situations, you do it because the story merits it, because you trust the source, and because you cannot get the info any other way. 

I believe the media tends to overestimate the value audiences place on “having it first.” They’d rather we get it right, dig deep, and deliver a complete story.