The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 15, 2013

Carol Stark: Anonymity and its place in the newsroom

By Carol Stark
Globe Editor


A call came my way this past week from a person inquiring as to whether or not we would publish an unsigned, anonymous letter in our paper.

Our policy, I explained, was only to publish letters that are signed and include a town. We ask letter writers to provide us a phone number so that we might also verify that they wrote the letter if they aren’t on our “regulars” list.

My answer wasn’t what the caller wanted to hear, and she referenced other papers that will withhold a name.

Again, I answered, policy is determined by the publication, and ours is standard for most newspapers.

The phone call ended quickly with the caller giving me little time for a discussion about the reason for our policy.

But maybe you have wondered the same thing.

I say this because I regularly get letters from writers who ask that the paper not use their name. They might as well ask that we not use their letter. The request has the same effect.

Unsigned letters, just like secrecy in government, have no credibility.

While some are entertaining, they generally are filled with accusations that can’t be verified and open the newspaper up to potential libel.

You might have noticed that, with few exceptions, we don’t use anonymous sources in our news stories either.

Again, it goes to the credibility of the story. In some cases — interviews with victims of sexual abuse or the elderly who worry about being identified because they live alone — we indicate we are not using the name.

Nor do we pay for interviews or information. Quid pro quo doesn’t belong in a newsroom.

We also demand that our reporters represent themselves as reporters.

They are not allowed to participate in “sting” journalism by assuming the role of someone other than a reporter. It may make for good reality TV, but it is a practice that’s based on guile.

So how exactly does anonymity have a place in our newsroom?

We value news tips from people who want to clue us in on something that needs investigation.

For example, someone learns that their boss is dumping hazardous waste into Shoal Creek. We agree not to reveal their identity as long as they are not part of the story at hand. In fact, we are willing to go to jail to protect a source’s identity.

That is why we don’t take anonymity lightly. 

Callers who want to alert us to breaking crime, a fire or the shutdown of an industry need not identify themselves but can call our newsroom at 417-627-7273. They can also leave a message for us on our Facebook page.

While we might ask their name, it’s not a necessary component to reporting a breaking news event. Simply tell us that you would prefer not to give your name.

Carol Stark is the editor-in-chief of The Joplin Globe.