Protections inconsistent for student journalists who withhold names of sources

It took Adelina Colaku weeks to convince her teachers and administrators to trust she wasn’t going to name them in a story for the student newspaper.

Colaku, then a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School in New Jersey, had been reporting on complaints about the district superintendent’s behavior — claiming he created an unhealthy work environment and harassed teachers and staff members — which department supervisors brought up in public school board meetings. As Colaku met with several teachers on background, she confirmed other complaints, including the existence of a letter from the superintendent’s wife trying to intimidate several tenured administrators and department supervisors.

Colaku didn’t take the issue of using anonymous sources lightly, but she knew the story was too important to go untold. She confirmed her information with multiple sources and tried to persuade them to go on the record.

But when jobs were on the line, building up enough trust with teachers to talk — even off the record — took time and persistent effort.

“A lot of teachers knew I was the girl who wasn’t scared of speaking up and teachers treated me differently,” she said. “They were careful of what they said around me. No teacher reached out to me willingly.”

When Colaku gave the story to her principal for prior review, it didn’t pass, in part because she used anonymous sources.

“The teachers I talked to were untenured,” she said. “They’re scared of retaliation from the school board.”

In the end, Colaku persuaded them to let her identify them as teachers and eventually one agreed to go on the record. She was allowed to publish in June — three months after submitting her first draft.

“What anonymous sources gave me was explosive and showed how corrupt our school is,” Colaku said.

Most journalists avoid using anonymous sources, with many schools discouraging it in nearly all situations. But, like Colaku, student journalists often find that the only way to attack controversial or sensitive — but significant — issues in schools, is to turn to anonymous sources.

Student protections not defined

The Society of Professional Journalists acknowledges that using anonymous sources is one of the profession’s murkiest legal and ethical areas.

In some instances, a journalist can be sent to jail if they refuse to name their sources when asked by a court. Most states and Washington, D.C., have shield laws, which prevent reporters from having to reveal their sources, or court precedents that protect journalists. And though a federal shield law was introduced in the Senate in 2013, it hasn’t been voted on.

West Virginia’s shield law, however, is the only one that explicitly protects student journalists; the laws in most states are open to interpretation and don’t explicitly deny students protection. Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, New York and Texas have shield laws that protect only paid journalists.

In its current state, the proposed federal shield law would cover college journalists, but not high schoolers. However, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said he “can’t even fathom a federal prosecution in which a high school student’s testimony would be demanded.”

LoMonte said he could count on one hand how many times high school journalists have had to go to court for not revealing anonymous sources. But legal issues aside, students have to make the ethical decisions whether to use them.

By allowing a crucial source to remain anonymous, reporters risk a perception of unreliability because readers can’t trace where the information came from. And if their source is wrong, reporters are the only ones to blame, hurting their credibility.

But sometimes anonymous sources are necessary, especially in Washington, D.C., where Fred Brown, vice chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, said reporters can’t operate without them.

“Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens,” according to an SPJ ethics position paper.

Little has been written on the role of anonymous sources in high school journalism, where some teachers and advisers argue that sources need greater protection in the media so they don’t admit something that could follow them for the rest of their lives. Still, many student newspapers use anonymous sources to tackle stories on issues like sex and drugs that could otherwise get students in trouble with administrators or even the police, but still pose large enough problems in the school that they have to be addressed.

But Kevin Smith, chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, said student journalists should follow the same rules as those working in the professional world. Before using an anonymous source, Smith said reporters should first consider a source’s motives and whether the information can be obtained anywhere else. The Ethics Committee is updating the code now to suggest reporters should not use anonymous sources for the “sole purpose of criticizing someone,” Smith said.

In high school, editors also need to keep in mind that they could be writing about minors who may not understand the effects of talking to a reporter. Brown said that sometimes when talking about sensitive matters, reporters should explicitly ask if a student wants to be named.

“If you’re a high school journalist, you need to be aware that sometimes your age cohort is not as circumspect about thinking about the implications of letting everything hang out there,” Brown said.

Small community

Claire Burke is the adviser for The Lion’s Tale, the student newspaper at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, which enrolls about 550 students in seventh through 12th grade.

“My students are conscious of embarrassing their fellow students,” she said. “Everybody’s family knows everybody else.”

But that doesn’t stop them from tackling controversial issues that affect their community. In the past two years, students have written about cheating in school, the pressure of relationships and sex in such a small community, drinking and texting while driving — where a student admitted to doing both — and battling ADHD. In each case, reporters relied on anonymous sources to show how these issues affected the school.

“Even things like the student relationship story could be potentially embarrassing and we take that seriously,” Burke said. “You say something and you can’t take it back.”

Burke said that she is also more cautious because the school is private, giving administrators more power over the press if they wish to take it. However, administrators normally grant the paper the freedom to publish without prior review no matter what they’re reporting on. She still tries to keep them in the loop.

Burke said she can’t imagine her principal telling her not to run a story or to change one, but if they did she said she would try and get them to discuss their concerns with students and compromise.

Additionally, the administrators have never stopped the paper from publishing a controversial story because it doesn’t mesh with Judaism, even though it’s a religious school, Burke said of her three years as an advisor.

Protecting parents

In 2010, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act — or what The New York Times called “the nation’s toughest bill on illegal immigration” — passed in Arizona. Ulises Araiza, then a senior at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, knew he had to localize it.

The bill required non-citizens to carry immigration documents and allowed police to detain anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally.

He was able to find several students who were affected by the bill, but none would go on the record out of fear their parents could face legal consequences, he said.

 Senior editors agreed the issue was important enough to justify using anonymous sources and gave Araiza their support. Mica Mulloy, who has been advisor of the student newspaper, The Roundup, for seven years, said this is the only time he has ever allowed them.

Araiza and two senior editors knew the identity of the source — a student whose father was in the country illegally — and made an agreement with him that, if there was any kind of investigation where they were told to release the name by law, they would not do so.

The principal promised Mulloy the full legal support of the school.

Mulloy reiterated to anyone who knew the identity to be very careful. “Don’t tell your buddies at lunch, it defeats the purpose,” he said, trying to make them understand the gravity of the situation. He wasn’t sure if law enforcement or immigration officers would try to investigate if they saw the story.

“There was some tension there at that point, especially with Hispanic students, because they didn’t know what was going to happen,” Mulloy said.

The newspaper received backlash from other students when it published the story on the front page of that month’s issue. Araiza said students spent the rest of the semester trying to get him to reveal the identity.

However, the point of contention was the issue itself more than the use of anonymous sources, he said.

Law enforcement and immigration officials didn’t reach out to identify the student, Mulloy said.

Students have asked to use anonymous sources several times while Mulloy has been advisor. Often students being interviewed assume they can be anonymous without reason because they see unnamed sources in mainstream media, he said.

“As a teacher that’s a challenge I face with students, in that we have to break down this preconceived notion that anonymous sources are what you do and that’s OK,” Mulloy said. “In fact, the opposite is true. If you’re doing your job as an ethical, accurate journalist, you need to have those names on hand a vast majority of the time.”

While doing stories on sensitive subjects, like drug use, for The Roundup, student reporters have found peers to go on the record. But, Mulloy said there’s a bigger issue at stake that school newspaper advisors face during these stories than just finding someone to write about and stopping them from getting in trouble.

“If the students know there’s a student using drugs who can be a voice as a story, I have to ask myself, at what point am I a journalist and at what point am I a teacher?” Mulloy said. “What responsibility do I have to that minor student to get them help instead of using them as a story?”

Protecting sexual assault victims

In February, student journalists at Fond du Lac High School in Wisconsin published an article called “The Rape Joke,” which told the story of three students who had been raped or sexually assaulted. The article explored how the common use of rape jokes in the school hurt those who had been sexually assaulted and couldn’t speak up for themselves without facing stigma.

Reporters and editors changed the names of all students involved and didn’t include identifying details of the men the women said raped or sexually assaulted them.

“I was very serious about keeping those sources anonymous and they stayed that way,” said Tanvi Kumar, then editor-in-chief of the school’s student newspaper, Cardinal Columns. “Even after all the attention that caught on and people were poking around to figure out who they were, I don’t think they had any idea.”

Following publication, the school’s administrators established a prior review policy, which the students fought. In an article discussing the student’s disapproval of the policy, a student who was raped was quoted by name — with her consent. Administrators asked the student editors to not reveal her name and then asked them to remove the quote fully. In September, administrators adopted a policy that returned editorial control to the student journalists and the newspaper’s adviser.

This wasn’t the only time the Cardinal Columns used anonymous sources. The editors also found it necessary when talking to a student who was selling drugs to other students.

“Those are stories that you wouldn’t typically get in a high school,” Kumar said. “How often would you be able to inform people on such an issue because that information isn’t really available to the public? It’s pretty secret. A story like that can be really enlightening when you read them.”

Proceed with caution

If student reporters aren’t careful about using anonymous sources only when there’s no other choice it can “open the door to more of that irresponsible behavior,” Smith said.

Burke said she had to rein in her students when they wanted to do a story on marijuana, where they “were being sensational because of the security of anonymity.”

Smith said the strong prevalence of rumors meant to hurt others in schools is something journalists need to pay attention to. Student reporters have to be careful not to be an outlet for gossip.

“We know how hurtful and destructive rumors can be and a lot of times they’re based on the idea that those telling the rumors are anonymous,” Smith said. “You have to guard against that.”

Mulloy said he keeps an eye out for sources with a “possible vendetta” or any reason to not be truthful. Smith said to be wary of sources who are “mean spirited” and “have an ax to grind.” He said it’s human nature to lie when something can’t be traced back to a specific person.

Echoing the students of JDS, the small community of a high school where everyone “pretty much knows what’s going on in each other’s lives,” means student journalists have to be extra aware of the effect of what they’re printing, Brown said.

“It’s like a small town — a high school, even a very large high school, it’s still a closed community,” Brown said.

Corrections (11/24/2014, 2:30 p.m.): This article originally misstatedadministrators at Brophy College Preparatory agreed a student reporter’s use of anonymous sources was justified and gave a reporter their support. Senior Editors at The Roundup gave their support. Additionally, newspaper editors staff members agreed they would not release the source’s name if they were required to by law.