Back to School Checklist: Sometimes an adviser’s ignorance is bliss (or at least safer)

In a previous blog post, we talked about the “facts of life” discussion that advisers and their students should have about the adviser’s limited ability to advocate publicly for her students’ interests without jeopardizing her own safety. Next on the list of things that need to be discussed NOW — before the first issue — is the newsroom policy regarding the handling of secret sources and confidential information.

This is not the bigger editorial/ethical discussion to be had regarding whether and/or how a news media organization uses anonymous sources. That is an important and debate-worthy topic that editors and advisers need to think about — but you’ve got a bit more time. (The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins has created a solid list of guidelines that make an excellent starting point for that discussion.) Rather, this Week 1 talk should address one thing:  A student media adviser should not be told — or ask that her students reveal — the identity of a student reporter’s secret source.

Student advisers are in a precarious legal and ethical position. They are newsroom insiders and (hopefully) trusted allies to whom editors and staff can turn to for guidance. They are also school employees. We discussed earlier the problems that can arise when an adviser — however nobly — takes her role as student advocate too far, for example by leading the charge in a censorship battle.

Another danger zone involves confidential sources.

Using a confidential source is always a serious matter. First, a source usually wants to keep his or her name secret because serious problems might arise if their identity was to be revealed. For example, a football player willing to talk to a reporter about his use of performance enhancing drugs (and perhaps that of his teammates) may believe — and probably with good reason — that disclosing his identity would ostracize him from the team and jeopardize his future.

Second, telling a source that you will protect his anonymity is a binding promise both ethically and maybe legally. The source has voluntarily agreed to disclose information, but only if you keep his name out of it.  You don’t have to accept those terms; he can keep his information to himself. But if you agree to his conditions and he talks, you must be prepared to keep your end of the bargain. Reporters go to jail to keep their promises to sources, and no reporter — students included — should ever promise their source anonymity source unless they have accepted such risks, too.

On the other hand, an adviser — as a school employee — often operates under a different set of rules. Pledges of secrecy notwithstanding, she may be legally bound to report what she knows about unlawful activity that occurs on school grounds (for instance, the identity of a known drug user).

There is simply no way to reconcile these obligations. In our example, an adviser who knows the identity of drug-using football player either breaks a serious promise not to reveal his identity or she keeps the secret and subjects herself to possible legal sanctions or punishment (including, presumably, the termination of employment). The only way to avoid such a legal and ethical quagmire is for the student staff to keep the identity of the source – and any confidential information obtained from the source – to themselves.  (And part of this includes storing any information about confidential sources on secure, non-school computers.) An adviser can’t be held responsible for failing to reveal information she doesn’t have.

While an adviser can and usually should be involved in the requisite discussion about whether using an anonymous source in a particular story is justified (which should always include talk of whether there are alternative ways of telling the story), now is the time for advisers and their students to create a system that shields an adviser from the protected information itself.  While keeping an adviser in the dark is not ideal, the lack of other viable options should make it an easy and necessary call.