Power and eagerness should be huge factors in deciding whether and when to grant confidentiality to sources.
My blog post yesterday about confidential sources represents my views on dealing with whistleblowers and prominent people such as government and military officials. But those aren’t the only people journalists write about. While my starting point remains on-the-record-spell-your-name-please, some stories present more complicated situations and demand more nuanced positions.
The powerful owe society and taxpayers a degree of openness and accountability. The powerful generally benefit enormously from media attention and deserve to take some heat when they don’t benefit. The powerful manipulate the media enough when they are being visible. To let them manipulate without any level of accountability is hardly ever justified.
Powerful sources who demand confidentiality are often eager to tell their stories. They just don’t want to be responsible for them. The more willing a source is to tell a story, the more insistent a reporter should be that the source stand by the story. When a powerful source approaches you with a tip, you need to be especially skeptical and demanding.
Sometimes the question of attribution is different. You’re not dealing with a source who wants to plant a story without accepting responsibility. Sometimes you are trying to persuade someone who is vulnerable to trust you with a sensitive story he or she is reluctant to tell.
That’s a different situation. The source is not exploiting you; you are exploiting her. Confidentiality can be an essential tool in telling the story, and sometimes a tool in getting the source on the record.
In 1996, I was working on a story about abortion for the Omaha World-Herald. I wanted to tell the stories of women in difficult pregnancy situations and the choices they made. Abortion was a huge issue at the time in Nebraska (eventually leading to a key Supreme Court ruling involving a Nebraska doctor, LeRoy Carhart), and I wanted to get beyond the rhetoric and tell the stories of individual women deciding to end or continue pregnancies. That’s not a story many women want to tell to strangers (especially a male stranger).
I had spent a few years building trust with activists on both sides of the issue and had told their stories. But I wanted to get to the heart of the issue: the decision a woman makes based on her situation and her conscience.
Try telling that story when the interview starts with asking a woman how to spell her name.
I persuaded my editors to let me offer women unusual control over the interview: They could decide afterward whether an interview was on the record. We wanted to use their real names (and, if possible, photographs) to give this story authority and make it personal, like the issue is at its heart. So the deal I offered possible sources was this: Let me sit down and hear your story. Then you can decide afterward whether I can use your name.
Using intermediaries on both sides of the issue, I connected with and eventually interviewed 11 women in all. Some had abortions. Some delivered babies. Some supported the right to abortion. Some opposed it.
One woman, who had multiple abortions, starting before the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationally, told me beforehand that she would never allow me to use her name. I still wanted to talk to her, so she talked. And she didn’t budge. Two women agreed after the interview to let me use their names. But they later changed their minds, one dissuaded by her husband, the other by her mother. Two others didn’t explain why they didn’t let me use their names. I guess no one really needed to explain. The tougher decision to explain was why some let me use their names.
But in six cases, women decided to go on the record: three pro-choice, three pro-life, four who had abortions, one who left the waiting room of an abortion clinic, one who continued with a pregnancy knowing her deformed fetus could not survive. Together they helped me humanize this most private of stories, one of the best stories of my career.
They were all on the record, but I could not have told their stories without some flexibility in granting confidentiality.
When I asked for the interviews (usually through intermediaries, so I couldn’t even make my pitch in person), those women had no idea whether they could trust me. They were not very interested in telling these intimate stories. Only the promise of confidentiality gave me a couple hours with them, an opportunity to earn their trust and an opportunity to let them hear how compelling their stories were. Once they had told the stories, and heard them as they spoke, they liked the idea of telling a broader audience.
In another important story in my career, confidentiality was essential to getting sources on the record for a story. In 1995, also when I was at the World-Herald, Nebraska football star Lawrence Phillips was arrested for assaulting a former girlfriend, a Husker basketball player. Football Coach Tom Osborne threw him off the team, saying he had told Phillips to stay away from the woman. Osborne said he would have no further comment on the case and Angela Beck, the women’s basketball coach, said she would have no comment beyond a general statement of support for the young woman.
I tried to interview a dozen or more female athletes at Nebraska. All of them insisted I could not use their names. Of course, I understood their fear. I saw the sturdy metal mailboxes Phillips had dented with his fists outside the young woman’s apartment. He was free on bail and the women were terrified.
But I persuaded a few of them to talk. A close friend of the victim told me of past instances of abuse, resulting in a meeting of the two athletes and their coaches. At the meeting, Osborne instructed Phillips to stay away from the woman or he would be off the team and Beck told the woman to stay away from Phillips (as is common in domestic violence cases, she had forgiven previous assaults).
My editors and I decided we had enough sources to go with the story, even though we couldn’t use sources’ names. But we also wanted to make it stronger. So I contacted Osborne and Beck. Because they had said they would have nothing more to say, I was not requesting an interview, just offering them the courtesy of hearing my story before publication. As they started listening to the story, they started correcting details and confirming the substance. These were the powerful sources, so I made clear as soon as they started providing information that we were on the record. So my confidential interviews with second-hand sources helped me get most of my interviews on the record from first-hand sources.
In another story dealing with domestic violence, I had to grant and keep confidentiality. I found and earned the trust of a woman who had used a little-known program of the Social Security Administration to change her identity and hide from an abusive ex-spouse. Clearly that story could not be done on the record unless she no longer felt afraid of him.
As a religion reporter for the Des Moines Register, I wrote about controversies in several denominations about gay and lesbian clergy. In denominations that did not allow ordination of gays in relationships, speaking publicly could end a pastor’s career. So I granted confidentiality, so I could learn more about the issue. In some instances of former clergy, we spoke initially off the record and I talked them into later speaking for the record.
I have written dozens of stories about victims of sexual abuse, many of them men who were abused in their youth by priests and a counselor at Boys Town. Some of them I persuaded to talk for the record. But we almost always started the discussion with an assurance of confidentiality.
Confidentiality decisions can be complicated. But you can simplify them by answering two questions:
- Is this source powerful or vulnerable?
- How eager is this source for me to publish this information?
A clarification on yesterday’s post
Since posting yesterday, I have thought of another condition that might justify confidentiality: If a source is disclosing information that is classified or covered by privacy laws, you might be justified in granting confidentiality. However, consider the factors above. If a powerful source is eager to disclose classified information (think Scooter Libby), the bigger story might be that person’s willingness to break the law.