Public Editor

Readers' thoughts about The Star and KansasCity.com

Don’t want to be identified by a reporter?

10/19/2013 6:57 PM

10/19/2013 6:57 PM

This is an example where I’m going to be purposely vague to avoid any undue embarrassment to a subject of a news story. But really, it’s the principle, not the specific instance, that matters.

I heard from a person who was featured in a recent story quite prominently. In fact, the story was even illustrated with a photo of the subject, who had clearly cooperated with the reporter and the photographer to pose for the image.

I have to admit I was puzzled, then, to hear that the subject was very upset that his or her full name had been used. To do so was “a severe breach of journalistic ethics,” this person alleged.

Sorry, no. Perhaps this person had a change of heart about revealing personal information (though the reporter tells me he received an initial complimentary phone call from the subject after the story first appeared).

But there was no attempt by the reporter to hide his identity or the purpose of their conversation. And posing for a photograph is sort of a dead giveaway that your photo may appear in the paper or on KansasCity.com.

Am I sympathetic to people who initially gladly volunteer information to a journalist, and then later regret it? Of course, particularly when it’s a private citizen with no experience speaking to the press. I can easily see how that could happen, and it’s likely the case here.

I think it is wise for reporters to be explicit with sources, even to the point of overkill. Let them know that by providing their names and other identifying details, which all good reporters verify carefully, they are giving implicit permission for the reporter to publish that.

But there’s no evidence here that the reporter did anything even remotely unethical. In fact, he says this particular subject volunteered to be a source upon learning he was writing about the topic of the story.

Things are a little different with the people I speak to as public editor. I am always extremely clear with anyone offering comment that I never use a name unless I’m given unambiguous permission to do so. Nobody should ever be worried that I’ll use anything I hear with a name unless I specifically clear it first. I will always offer to say I heard a comment from “a reader.”

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