Ethics Questions: Investigative Journalism and Anonymous Sources

This spring, I was part of an investigative journalism class with Mike Beaudet and Fox25. One story we worked on looked at problems with electronic monitoring ankle bracelets in Massachusetts, and around the country. The bracelets often lose signal and probationers are being arrested without doing anything wrong.

Stories like this one, and investigative stories in general, often will require an ethical discussion. The first part might be whether or not to pursue a story to begin with. In our case, the desire to bring attention to a problem and a feeling of the public’s right to know about an issue outweighed any potential negatives to pursuing the story, such as negatively depicting the Probation Department.

How to include some of our information in the video side of the story was a class discussion. We spoke to a convicted criminal who was on probation and had had problems with his ankle bracelet.

We considered how to depict him in the video. Should his image and voice be included at all? Should his voice be changed? Should he be shown only in silhouette? Should we only use a graphic of a quote on the screen to share his story?

Several of our sources for this story asked to remain anonymous. We were still able to quote them and use footage and audio in our story, which was especially important for a broadcast story relying on these elements. Using anonymous sources is a common source of ethical debate in journalism. In this case, allowing our sources to remain anonymous protected the integrity of the information they provided. They were able to share their full experience and be protected from negative personal repercussions. Using audio and video from these sources helped make them more legitimate to our audience as well and strengthen the story.

One thing I wonder about, is how this story might have been approached differently if produced by a print publication. Some of these issues might not have been as much of a concern, mainly the visual elements. Still, how do you prove that you have a credible source in print without using a name or giving away too much information?


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