Ah, anonymity. Yet another grey area to wade through in an already murky puddle that is the complicated nature of journalism.
I recently received an anonymous letter to the editor. The person wrote he or she is a paramedic working for the BC Ambulance Service, and could not disclose her or his identity for fear of disciplinary action.
I was not under the impression this letter was sent to only me or even written by a local paramedic (it described shift hours that are different than the ones paramedics at the local station work).
Needless to say, I was not surprised to see it crop up in the letters to the editor section of another newspaper, the Comox Valley Record.
The BC Ambulance Service has gone through a number of organizational changes in the last few years, and with administrative overhauls comes an inevitable landslide of criticisms — from people inside the organization and out.
I have no doubt that editor weighed the pros and cons of publishing the anonymous letter for a long time before going ahead with it.
The editor of that newspaper put it well in an online comment: “Readers (and people or groups being criticized) deserve to know who their critics are.”
Eventually, he must have settled on the pros outweighing the cons, and he has seen his comments section become a forum for lively debate on the topic.
However, in a story that ran in last Thursday’s paper about the changes to the federal government’s medical marijuana access rules, I decided to go ahead and keep my source’s name anonymous. Naming a person who uses marijuana for medicinal purposes would out her as a person with a disease and could have potentially embarrassing consequences for her.
There is already plenty of harsh judgement to go around, and I do not feel the need to exacerbate that — especially when not disclosing her name did not detract at all from the value of her insight.
She is, after all, the “person on the street,” if you will, who can provide emotion and colour to a story that, without that interview, would be a bland recap of administrative changes.
Of course, it’s only like that in rare circumstances.
The Canadian Association of Journalists recently released a discussion paper on the related topic of informed consent. The paper asks if journalists have a responsibility to discuss with sources the potential negative consequences of participating in interviews, particularly sources who identify as marginalized or vulnerable.
And the answer, of course, is there is no one answer. It always has been and always will be case dependent.
Journalists should not try to do the work of advocates or social workers. But source sensitivity is a pillar of the interview practice, and potential consequences (positive and negative) often come up organically in the course of interviews, and they’re usually carefully weighed by both parties.