A Reflection on the Importance of Sources in Journalism

The Enlightenment of the 17th-18th century introduced a series of new philosophies to the journalists of the day. The idea of humankind as inherently good and reasonable, and concepts such as freedom of choice, opinion and speech became essential to the developing society. These notions of a free press encouraged journalism to develop into what it is today- the practice of discovering and bringing the truth to the public. In this practice, sources are used to achieve a diversity of opinion in the public sphere. According to the NYU Journalism Handbook for Students (2007), a source is “a person who contributes information to a piece of reportage”. Sources are, in the words of The Saturday Paper editor, Erik Jensen, “fundamentally important” to journalists. The type of source used is dependant on the style of the story. For ‘hard news’, sources are generally representative. This includes emergency services representatives or government bodies. ‘Soft news’ sources are generally are individuals. These people are the ‘human face’ of the news, providing an emotional side to the story.

There are certain ethical expectations that must be considered by journalists when dealing with sources, non-dependant on the type of story. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) is a professional organisation and union striving to have journalists committed to honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the right of others. These principles are emphasised in the MEAA Code of Ethics and are to be followed by any ethical journalist. Point number three of the code relates specifically to sources. It states that journalists must “aim to attribute information to its source” and continues on by saying “where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.” Erik Jensen has also spoken about questioning anonymous sources. He said it’s import to trust sources but don’t “run with a single source” because you need to “check your story further” to make sure it’s credible information. According to Jensen, it is also vital to research and understand your source so as to “decide what agenda they are pursuing”.

Also falling into the ethical branch of journalism is a concept called ‘chequebook journalism.’ This process is when a journalist pays money to a source in return for a story. As Chris McLeod wrote in the Press Council News (2005), “there are great dangers in waving the cheque book around”. He goes on to say “the obvious risk in some cases is that the story-teller may feel obliged to enhance the story”. This risk of lying obviously goes against the journalists’ aim to find and exhibit the truth. While this practice is culturally acceptable in Great Britain and the United States, it is not acceptable in the Australian Media. This is because it ultimately allows the larger and wealthier media corporations to gain interviews for the big stories that will not be attainable to the smaller and lesser-funded groups. This inequality would not be acceptable in a nation that has a free press.

Another practice ethically unacceptable in Australia is called ‘cash for comment.’ This is when a journalist is paid to present information in a positive light as if it’s news. This obviously goes against ethical practice because the journalist is altering the truth as a result of the payment they’ve been given. A scandal involving ‘cash for comment’ broke out in 1999. It was discovered 2UE radio hosts, John Laws and Alan Jones, had been paid to talk favourably about companies such as Qantas and Foxtel as well as the Australian Banks. This went against Australian Broadcasting Authority standards and, as a result, 2UE was fined $360,000 for the breaches. The concept of ‘perks’ also relates, as it is when a journalist accepts gifts or bribes to cover a story. Although sometimes it is unavoidable, it is definitely not an acceptable practice. For example, when reviewing a novel, the journalist needs to be given a copy of it. They can accept the gift but it should be returned or payed for by the journalist’s publication once the story is written. These practices are unacceptable because a form of payment would cloud the judgement of the journalist, resulting in the truth not being portrayed in an accurate and fair way. This interference with the truth telling process ultimately deems these practices as unethical.

There are also legal expectations that need to be considered by journalists when working with sources. This is most prevalent when it comes to dealing with anonymous sources and the possible fall out as a result of utilising their information. As said by Stephen Lamble in his textbook News as it happens: An Introduction to Journalism (2013), “if you decide to protect a source, and are later asked in a court who that source was and you refused to reveal his or her identity, you could be jailed for contempt of court.” Being sentenced to ‘contempt of court’ means that the journalist has interfered with the “proper course of justice” and as a result will be jailed for any number of time. Some journalists would reveal their anonymous sources to avoid such penalties. But as Lamble said, their “name would be mud- not only with the source but within media generally”. He emphasises that by doing this, it’ll be “unlikely sources, your peers, news executives or your audience would ever trust you again”. Trust is vital to a journalist, so losing it in this manner would effectively end a career.

When you gain sources through trust, it is important to have a contact book to store their details in. I have developed my contact book around the Moonee Valley region. Situated in the North-Western suburbs of Melbourne, Moonee Valley has a population of 117,337 people. According to the 2011 Census results, 67.4% of the population is Australian born although 85.9% of its people are Australian citizens. The results also demonstrate that Moonee Valley has a large Italian community with it representing 5.0% of the population as opposed to 1.7% in Greater Melbourne. The Census also gives great detail as to the key industries in Moonee Valley. Health Care and Social Assistance has the greatest percentage of workers with 10.6% of the population followed by Retail Trade (10.0%) and Education and Training (9.7%).

The prevalence of retail and local business is evident through the two separate Chambers of Commerce- the Moonee Ponds and the Flemington branches. There are also several traders associations working with these Chambers of Commerce. These contacts- the North Essendon Traders Association, the Niddrie Traders Association, Union Road Traders Association and the Rose Street Village Trader Association- have been placed in my contact book to highlight the importance of local business and trade in Moonee Valley. I have also gained the contact details of the local shopping centres- DFO Essendon Fields, Westfield Shopping Centre Airport West and Moonee Ponds Central- to represent the sheer number of retail centres in the area. The health and social services sector is another vital industry to the Moonee Valley region. As a result, I have recorded several local hospitals, health care and aged care facilities in my contact book. These include the Essendon Private Hospital, the Essendon branch of the Royal District Nursing Service and the Allity Aged Care Facility. Education is another great contributor to the Moonee Valley community as evident by the 27 Primary Schools, 11 High Schools and one TAFE within the district. These numbers include government, Catholic and independent schools which demonstrates the diversity within the region.

Balance is extremely important for a journalist. In order to provide the truth in its entirety, and to allow the public to develop their own opinion, all stances on an issue must be detailed to the audience. Demonstrating only one side shows bias, which can unfairly influence the audience’s thoughts. I have exhibited this through the variety of religious groups represented in my contact book. A large majority of the Moonee Valley Community (42.3%) identified themselves as Roman Catholics in the 2011 Census. This is evident by the thirteen Roman Catholic Parishes in the area and as a result I have placed many of these parishes as contacts. But to also represent the other 57.7% of the community, I have retrieved contacts from other religious denominations in the area. Examples of this are the Church of Scientology in Ascot Vale, the Lutheran Church of Australia in Strathmore, St John’s Uniting Church in Essendon and the Baha’i Community of Moonee Valley. By having these groups as contacts, I am able to demonstrate a balanced view on any religious issues that might arise in my area. I will be able to receive quotes and information from both the dominant Roman Catholic Community as well as the smaller denominations.

When working with sources, journalists must be conscious of all ethical and legal expectations. Their sources must be dealt with in a fair and honest manner, in order to provide truth to the public arena. The Enlightenment has given journalists the opportunity to work with sources in this process of truth telling. It is in this freedom of the press that journalists must aim to be ethical and considerate in every aspect of their work.

 

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