Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: Journalism ethics question ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   3 Comments )
Subject: Journalism ethics question
Category: Relationships and Society
Asked by: rosalind-ga
List Price: $2.00
Posted: 02 Jun 2003 20:39 PDT
Expires: 02 Jul 2003 20:39 PDT
Question ID: 212292
I need some thoughts on a journalism ethics question. To answer this
question, please have some kind of real world experience working in
journalism, preferrably as a writer/researcher/reporter. Comments from
the peanut gallery are welcome!

I am in the middle of writing an article (non-fiction, sort of a New
Yorker style reportage/culture piece.) A lot of my material is from
interviews I have conducted over e-mail (I am covering a part of
online culture.) People have said some wild and intense things to me
in response to questions I have sent them, and in later conversations.

Sufficiently intense that I am wondering if it is OK to print them. I
*never* implied that we were "on" *or* "off" record. (I guess I'm an
amateur.) I said I was writing an article, and that I was looking for
people to answer questions for it.

I am worried that if I go back and ask people if it's OK to
print/quote their words, they'll have second thoughts and say
something more mellow.

I am considering using first names only, to minimize the damage if
someone feels bad post facto.

What should I do?

a) Quote, and print full names, possibly locations, like (I guess?)
real reporters Jayson Blair aside do.

b) Quote, and print first names only. A little less in the realism.

c) Get permission for quotes and printing names, etc.

What's the thing to do here? What do they teach you in Journo school,
or the school of hard knocks?

It goes w/o saying that I have the best of intentions in mind, and
that I'm *not* out to make anyone look ridiculous or stupid. I am,
however, interested also in getting the best story out of things.
Subject: Re: Journalism ethics question
Answered By: darrel-ga on 02 Jun 2003 20:53 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

I have quite a few years of journalism experience under my belt and
have some answers for you.

First, you're asking whether you think these folks knew they were
talking with you on the record. If you properly identified yourself at
the outset of the conversation as a reporter for X company, the entire
conversation is considered to be on the record unless noted otherwise.

If you didn't identify yourself as a reporter, you need to be sure to
put that in your story or call the person back and ask whether it's
okay to publish his/her comments.

In addition, it sounds as if you're having severe second thoughts as
to whether one or more of the people you've spoken to for your story
really intends for you to print what was said. You should call these
individuals and tell them that you plan on publishing your story
including quotes from them saying "x." Ask them whether that's truly
what they meant to say, or whether they want to clarify their answer
at all, because you intend on quoting them saying that.

Now I will answer your specific questions.
Should I...
a) Quote, and print full names, possibly locations, like (I guess?)
real reporters Jayson Blair aside do.
Yes. You should feel free to quote these individuals, with their
titles and locations for any comments they made that weren't
specifically noted as "off the record" or "not for attribution." As
long as they know they were talking with a reporter, you aren't doing
anything unethically.

b) Quote, and print first names only. A little less in the realism. 
No. This leaves your readers wondering why only first names are being
used. Some publications have a very casual style that require essays
or articles to only use first names. But 99.9 percent of the time,
only using first names leaves more questions than it does answers for
your readers.

c) Get permission for quotes and printing names, etc. 
If you are that concerned about it, yes. You should probably call
these people back, tell them what you plan on quoting them as saying
and ask if they want to add anything to that.

I've also conducted a search on journalism ethics for you.
You may see the results of my search online. The link is

I hope this helps. If you need any clarification, please don't
hesitate to click the "clarify" button.


Request for Answer Clarification by rosalind-ga on 02 Jun 2003 21:20 PDT
Hi Darrel,

Thanks. I never identified myself as a "reporter", rather as an essay
writer (I'm doing this freelance; it's my first forary into something
other than book reviews.)

I think, after reading what you said, that this puts me in a position
where I should ask people if I can quote and/or identify them before
doing so.

In the future, do you have any advice for how to present oneself as a
reporter? I never thought of myself as one before now. To tell the
truth, referring to myself as a "reporter" when I'm freelancing sounds
a bit pretentious; perhaps I could call myself a "freelance
journalist"? Does that carry the same weight and implication, and does
it put things on the record?

Clarification of Answer by darrel-ga on 02 Jun 2003 21:38 PDT
I have done plenty of freelance work... articles in the hundreds
Sometimes I refer to myself as "a freelance reporter for X"; other
times I identify myself as "a reporter for X."

It really doesn't matter much. Those who are full time at the
publication or company you're freelancing for won't be offended.

When I call someone, I first say "Hi. This is [first name] [last
name]. I'm a reporter for X."

That clears up any doubt as to who you are and what your intentions
are. Identifying yourself as a freelance reporter carries no different
meaning than identifying yourself as a reporter.

I hope this helps.
rosalind-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $5.00
Kabam! Wow.

Subject: Re: Journalism ethics question
From: ian_stobie-ga on 03 Jun 2003 09:10 PDT
There's another consideration beyond ethics - your own reputation.
Particularly if you are just starting out in journalism, you need to
build up a group of contacts who trust you and who you can use as
sources in your specialist area.

Such people can be very valuable to you over many years, providing not
just quotes but background information and contacts to their own
networks. I sense in your question that you are worried some people
may feel betrayed if you publish what they've just told you, even if
it is legitimately on the record (as it very probably is).

You are right to take these feelings seriously. Journalists (I've got
more than 20 years experience) tend to be very protective of their
contacts, for good reason.

Think of your contact book and the reputation you've built up among
the people in it as one of the key assets that enables you to function
as a journalist. Yes, you can get one of your contacts into trouble
for the sake of a particular story, but what position does that leave
you in when you come to write your next story?  Is your contact book
richer or poorer, your reputation for fair dealing better or worse?

In a few months the commissioning editor you sought to please with
that startling quote probably won't even remember it, but your
divorced, dismissed or just simply hurt source most definitely will,
as may many of their friends.

There's obviously a balancing act here between the interests of your
source and those of your readers, but don't forget your own long-term
interests - some fields soon become impossible to work in if no one
trusts you.

These things are best discussed with other journalists. Here are some
forums and email discussion lists (US) (mainly UK) (international)
Subject: Re: Journalism ethics question
From: saabster-ga on 03 Jun 2003 11:20 PDT

I think there is also an issue of informed consent.  I don't know the
people with whom you spoke nor their experience in talking with a
reporter, but I would be willing to bet that most will have second
thoughts about you printing their comments verbatim. Many people who
are unexperienced in dealing with the press often find the reporter
personable and will speak honestly, often forgetting that its for
attribution until they see it in an article. Going the extra mile to
assure that those who spoke to you are given a chance to give you
permission to use their comments is you working at your higest ethical
level. You will never regret making an ethical choice!
Subject: Re: Journalism ethics question
From: ian_stobie-ga on 04 Jun 2003 07:35 PDT
If everything were always that clear-cut, saabster-ga, there wouldn't
be any difficulty in making these kind of decisions. But suppose the
people you've talked to are up to something bad, something that
readers really should be made aware of. By being scrupulously fair to
your sources you may end up betraying your readers.

In your present case, rosalind-ga, I'd do exactly what Darrel
recommends. But there may be other occasions where something someone
says to you in an unguarded moment should be used even if they later
regret it - without giving them the opportunity to retract.

This has to be so because it's one of the ways bad things are
unmasked. It can be a tough call because it's not always just bad
people who suffer when such things are brought out into the open. But
as a journalist, unless there's a very good reason not to, you should
put your readers' interests first.

Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy