Archive for December 19th, 2013

Granting confidentiality to sources is one of the grayest areas of journalism ethics and one of the areas where we need extensive discussions of standards.

Nearly every journalist agrees that it’s better to name our sources than to withhold their identities. And nearly every journalist agrees that we sometimes have to agree not to name sources in order to tell some important stories. But we don’t all agree on when to grant confidentiality. And we’re not always consistent in deciding when to grant confidentiality and whether to publish information based on unnamed sources.

Since I blogged that we need more detailed advice on ethical issues, I’ve been planning to update the ethics handouts I developed for the two series of ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2009, under a pair of grants from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. I’ve gathered my detailed discussions of ethical issues into a category on the blog and will make them a series that will continue for a while.

I’m also posting my handout from those workshops on dealing with confidential sources, but here I’ll outline and discuss factors journalists should consider in whether to grant confidentiality to a source and whether to publish or broadcast stories based on confidential sources: (more…)


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Here’s my 2005 handout on dealing with confidential sources. I started updating it but decided I’d do an entirely new post, so this is mostly the handout I used for ethics seminars when I was at the American Press Institute, with some links added. I encourage you to read my 2013 post: Factors to consider in granting confidentiality to sources, and the case studies linked at the end of this post. If you read both, they will overlap, but they take different approaches. If you’re only going to read one, read the new one. (I originally got confused on the old headline for this handout and posted it as “You can quote me on that.” That was, of course, the headline for a handout on attribution.)

Few practices have dealt more blows to the credibility of American journalism than the use of confidential sources.

The fabrication scandals of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley revolved largely around the use of unnamed sources. The New York Times’ faulty reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was based on unidentified sources. CBS News and Newsweek issued embarrassing retractions of reports based on confidential sources.

The jailing of Judith Miller underscored that the stakes for journalists go beyond credibility. The indictment and conviction of Scooter Libby based largely on the testimony of Miller and three other journalists demonstrated that journalists cannot always assure that a source will remain confidential.

The identification of Mark Felt as Deep Throat also has reminded us why we need confidential sources. The ideal standards and practices will allow the use of a modern-day Deep Throat, while pushing more sources onto the record to build reader credibility.

Proper use of confidential sources will protect journalists against the errors of recent scandals and protect news organizations against the use of bogus sources by fraudulent journalists.

This discussion will seek to clarify for the editors and reporters on your staff the standards for your newsroom: When do you grant confidentiality? How do you verify information from unnamed sources? How do you press sources to speak publicly? How do you identify these sources to your reader and explain why the reader should trust you and the source? How do you protect the source? (more…)

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Lawrence Phillips photo linked from Bleacher Report

Some sources won’t talk to you unless you grant them confidentiality because they fear for their safety. Journalists should grant those sources confidentiality. Sometimes you can use what they tell you to persuade other sources to go on the record.

This post is part of two series on my blog: updated lessons from old stories and detailed ethics discussions. I discuss the issue of confidential sources more broadly in an accompanying post.

This post is more of a case study, a story that shows good reasons to grant confidentiality to sources and a technique for using information from confidential sources to push reluctant sources into going on the record.

The story will be familiar to football fans. It’s the story of Lawrence Phillips‘ relationship with a woman he had been charged with assaulting. We named the victim in the 1995 story in the Omaha World-Herald. I will just use her initials now. Following the ethical principle of minimizing harm, I don’t see a need to pop a new story (that offers no new information) into Google searches for her name more than 18 years later. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with naming her at the time, but that’s another discussion and another tough ethical issue (I’ll discuss it at the end of this post). My story and other media coverage of that assault certainly deepened her trauma of being assaulted. You can find her name pretty quickly if you search for links about Phillips.

This was Phillips’ first criminal case after bursting onto the national scene as a star running back at the University of Nebraska. (He’s now serving a 31-year prison term for other crimes, including an attack on another girlfriend.) After a dominant sophomore season, he was a strong early contender for the Heisman Trophy after running for 206 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan State in the Cornhuskers’ second game of the season.

Tom Osborne photo linked from Husker Spot

But Phillips was arrested that Sunday for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. I covered the police and courts end of the story for the Omaha World-Herald, while colleagues in sports covered the coaches’ statements. Huskers football coach Tom Osborne said he had thrown Phillips off the team (he later reinstated Phillips). The team discipline was separate from the criminal case went, where Phillips was innocent until proven guilty, Osborne said. The coach said he had told Phillips to stay away from the ex-girlfriend, a Husker basketball player, and he was dismissed for disobeying the coach. (more…)

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Some people will talk for the record about private matters if you get a chance to earn their trust.

That was the big lesson for me from one of the most memorable stories of my career, telling the personal stories, on the record, of six women who experienced troubled pregnancies and their decisions of whether to have an abortion or give birth.

If I were doing this story today, I would certainly add crowdsourcing to the techniques I used to find women who would be sources for this story. Finding sources was the biggest challenge in doing the story and was, of course, the key to the story.

It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do this story by itself. I had developed good relationships with people on both sides of the issue and they played intermediary by hooking me up with potential sources (and by vouching for me to those sources).

Of course, physicians and counselors who connected me with sources wouldn’t and shouldn’t (even before tougher federal health-privacy laws) give me names and phone numbers of patients or clients. They gave my name and phone number to women they thought might talk to me (or perhaps to women whose stories they thought would portray their own views sympathetically). I have no idea how many women got my name and phone number but never called, but eventually, I connected with enough women. (more…)

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