Say you’re a nonfiction writer researching sources for a book. You learn of a new source willing to talk to you. What should you be thinking about before you conduct this interview? Are there ethical norms? Should you tape the interview? Why? Why not? What disclosures should you make? Are there privacy issues here? Defamation? False light? Is your source a deep throat, or a big mouth? What should you do to protect yourself? The witness? Your book? Your sanity?

Some of these call for legal advice. Others are ethical. I will skip the former and dance around the latter. This is only a blog, not a treatise.

How might you identify ethical issues inherent in interviewing sources? What is your role as an interviewer and what are the ethical consequences of conducting interviews? For starters, you might go straight to this website: http://samples.jbpub.com/9780763766436/66436_CH02_FINAL.pdf  It is Chapter 2 of a book with the intriguing title, “Ethics Surrounding Interviewing.”

Are you going to conduct a “motivational” interview? If so, you might visit https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231880831_Motivational_Interviewing_A_Special_Ethical_Dilemma. It “aims to contribute to the discussion of the ethical issues in motivational interventions.” Honestly, I didn’t even know what “motivational” interviewing was. It’s apparently used in behavioral therapy sessions.

Most nonfiction writers divide the process into unequal halves: research and writing. The research piece almost always includes interviews. And before the actual interview, there is a preparation phase—preparing to interview. Then doing the interview, transcribing it, doing a follow-up, and then sculpting the information.

Now comes the hard part. What do you owe the interviewee? Anything?

Let’s say you’re writing about a highly publicized murder. You interview the victim’s family members. What about them? Do they get a say in what you say they said? If you quote them, do you have to tell that in advance? After publication? Do they get to see your draft before publication? Are your sources public figures? Are they treated differently than private citizens?

What ethical risks do you run if each of your answers to these questions is no?

Here’s a short list—you owe interviewees basic honesty, fairness, and openness about your intentions. You ought to give them an option:

  • to say nothing
  • to say something you will keep private
  • to say only what they know for sure, not what they are guessing at
  • to refuse.

As long as you’re not law enforcement, you don’t have to give them their Fifth Amendment rights under Miranda.  But still, think about the right to privacy ordinary people owe to other ordinary people.

A good place to think is the Internet. Look at this site: https://maybornhsworkshop.com/2017/07/26/conference-speakers-explore-ethics-of-nonfiction-writing/. It covers aspects of nonfiction interviewing.

Another source is: https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/ethics-in-the-news/handling-sources. It advises journalists to adhere to basic principles: “Journalists need to be as transparent as possible in their relations with sources. The news media have great power and people can be flattered when they are approached by reporters without understanding fully the risks to themselves and to others when they come into the public eye. This is particularly true of people caught up in humanitarian disasters, war or other traumatic events. Journalists have to assess the vulnerability of sources as well as their value as providers of information. They have to explain the process of their journalism and why they are covering the story. They should not, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, use subterfuge or deception in their dealings with sources.”

This site (https://www.westernjournal.com/about/ethics-editorial-standards/ offers good advice:  “We should ensure that sources are reliable. To the maximum extent possible, we should make clear to our audience who and what our sources are, what motivations our sources may have and any conditions people have set for giving us information. When unsure of information, we should leave it out or make clear it has not been corroborated.”

There are many sources for the ethics of interviewing sources. Underlying them all is truth. Thomas Aquinas said, “A natural thing, being placed between two intellects, is called true insofar as it conforms to either . . .  With respect to its conformity with a human intellect, a thing is said to be true insofar as it is such as to cause a true estimate about itself.[1]

Federico Fellini said, “Happiness is being able to speak the truth without hurting anyone.”[2] Nuff said.



Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth#Notable_views See footnote 80.

[2] https://artofquotation.wordpress.com/2016/11/18/happiness-consists-of-being-able-to-tell-the-truth-without-hurting-anyone/comment-page-1/