Ethics Questions: Offensive items at the flea market

When checking out my hometown newspaper for our error correction assignment, I found a different story than I was anticipating. A few weeks ago, Wallingford, Conn. police received a complaint about Nazi and Confederate items being sold at a popular local flea market.

The Record-Journal article on the complaint quoted the complainant, who asked to remain anonymous. The reason given for allowing the source to remain anonymous was that he feared backlash for his complaint. Newspapers should use caution when allowing a source to hide their identity. A case where the information provided is very sensitive might warrant anonymity, but a desire to have a source as part of the story shouldn’t outweigh the need for transparency with the audience.

The article did give some identifying details about the source; that he was Jewish and a town resident. This could be a strategy to add some credibility when using an anonymous source.

What would be the significance of leaving the man out of the story completely because he wanted to remain anonymous? The Record-Journal could have instead focused the article on what was found at the flea market and the police’s response. Would this have changed the truth of the story or its journalistic purpose?

The incident gained some national attention with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh commenting on the story. The Record-Journal also covered this in terms of a debate about free speech and symbols. I found this aspect of the story to be more interesting that the fact of the complaint.

This follow-up article addresses the issue of free speech rights brought up by the original complaint about Nazi and Confederate memorabilia.

The original article did not contain any photos or detailed descriptions of the memorabilia. This could be one way to deal with offensive or sensitive topics. This would be an especially important discussion when dealing with these particular symbols, in light of recent events in Charleston, which the second article addresses. The newspaper might consider if photos or other descriptions of these symbols might offend their readers and need to find the best way to minimize harm in this situation.


2 thoughts on “Ethics Questions: Offensive items at the flea market

  1. Bill Mitchell says:

    I like the way you pushed to an alternative approach to the coverage, Jess. And even if the flea market was done for the week by the time the reporter learned of the incident, it’s the sort of thing that cries out for follow-up coverage.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ksmajed says:

    I definitely agree that there should be some kind of follow-up coverage on the topic. I would want to know
    more about the seller and their customers, who exactly is buying? Were the buyers mostly historical collectors or people doing so because it represents their beliefs?

    The topic itself is attention grabbing, without description or images – just the title raises questions, concern and curiosity. In a situation where the anonymous source feels uncomfortable for obvious reasons to provide their identity, it makes sense that they would attach a loose identity as well as a valid reason for their cover. It’s reasonable for the newspaper to want to protect the source’s identity as well as avoid images in order not to offend any readers.


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