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?
Anonymous sources vs. confidential sources. First, let’s get the terminology straight: Don’t publish information from truly anonymous sources. An anonymous source would be a person whose identity is unknown even to the reporter. This may be a caller passing along an anonymous tip. This may be a person who meets a reporter face to face but doesn’t disclose her identity. It may be a tip by email or an anonymous comment on your website or through social media.
These anonymous sources may be helpful to a reporter. An anonymous source might pass along some information that could lead the reporter to documents or named sources who could verify and illuminate the anonymous source’s information. The source never appears in the story but the story could not be done without the source’s help.
The anonymous source may have valid reasons to remain anonymous and may be providing accurate information. But you can’t trust a source who doesn’t trust you. Don’t use anything from an anonymous source that you can’t verify from documents you know to be valid or sources you know and trust.
Though much of the discussion about journalism controversies uses the term “anonymous sources,” that is really inaccurate in most cases. The controversy is really over the use of confidential sources. This is a source whose identity you know. You know who the person is, why he knows what he’s telling you and why he wants to tell you. But you keep the source’s identity confidential and don’t disclose it to readers or to the courts.
Journalists who call these sources anonymous are subtly aiding the erosion of credibility by using an inaccurate term that implies a lower degree of credibility. Other accurate terms would be unnamed sources, unidentified sources or undisclosed sources.
Consider the extremes in use of confidential sources. Few, if any, journalists or news organizations operate at either extreme. One extreme would be to never speak to sources except on the record. At this extreme, you wouldn’t even receive the confidential or anonymous tip and see whether you can find on-the-record verification. At the other extreme, you would never push a source to go on the record and might offer confidentiality even to sources who would be willing to go on the record. Most journalists and news organizations operate somewhere between the extremes.
The extremes of actual practice are more nuanced. Some organizations seldom or never publish information from anonymous sources, but they would talk to people on a confidential basis, hoping to persuade the source to go on the record or to provide enough information that the reporter can verify the story from other sources or documents. The test for these organizations is when they can’t nail down the story, are they willing to get beaten on the story rather than relax their standards for confidential sources?
Other news organizations make extensive use of confidential sources and routinely use some sources who never go on the record. They do try to push at least some sources to go on the record, but confidentiality becomes a routine that feeds on itself: Sources who might be willing to go on the record see how readily the paper provides confidentiality, so they hide behind the same cloak.
Neither of these extremes in practice is ideal: Attributed information isn’t necessarily accurate anyway, so the organization that insists on naming sources may still publish stories that aren’t credible, in addition to getting beaten on other stories and failing to break some investigative stories that require confidentiality. The organization that’s more aggressive in granting confidentiality publishes some groundbreaking, accurate stories that readers still question because they can’t evaluate the sources.
As you consider how your organization handles confidential sources, consider these issues:
How does your news organization grant confidentiality and who can do that? Can a reporter grant confidentiality on her own authority? The organization has a stake in confidentiality. The organization’s credibility takes a hit if readers don’t trust stories with unnamed sources. The organization pays the legal bills if prosecutors want to learn the names of confidential sources. The organization may take a hit in a civil suit if it can’t produce witnesses to support libelous allegations it has published.
Reporters and editors (top newsroom editors and line editors who deal directly with reporters) need to discuss the process and standards for granting confidentiality in your newsroom. Do you always need an editor’s approval before granting confidentiality? If so, which editor(s)? If the authority is rather narrow, what do you do when you can’t reach anyone with authority? Do you grant exceptions in extreme cases?
A middle ground between free license for reporters and tight control by editors is to talk about situations in advance when dealing with sensitive stories that might involve confidentiality. If a reporter anticipates (or knows) a source will be reluctant to talk for the record, the editors and reporter can discuss in advance what to do and what conditions to offer the source.
When confidentiality requests arise without warning, can the reporter have an initial confidential talk with the source to assess the situation, then confer with the editors before going further? Or should editors discuss general terms of confidentiality and give reporters room to operate within those terms?
If a reporter grants confidentiality without consulting with editors (whether because of an error or circumstances) and editors disagree with the decision, editors should respect the promise of confidentiality, but they can decide not to publish the information unless the source will go on the record. Editors would undercut a reporter’s credibility if they identified a source to whom a reporter promised confidentiality. In addition, some courts have regarded the reporter’s confidentiality commitment as a binding contract, so editors should consult attorneys before identifying a source the reporter promised confidentiality.
Keep in mind, though, that the promise of confidentiality can create legal problems even if you never write a story. Remember that Judith Miller went to jail for refusing to disclose a source she never cited in a story. Bob Woodward was called to testify before the grand jury about a matter he had not written about. So as much as possible, you want to address issues in advance of awarding confidentiality.
All sources are not created equal
Consider the source’s status, the source’s information, the source’s access to information and the source’s willingness to talk. A reporter should always be skeptical of someone who contacts the reporter seeking to leak information. The information may be accurate, but always consider that one reason the source may request confidentiality is because he isn’t confident of the information himself.
When a source offers unsolicited information to a reporter, the reporter’s first challenge is always to assess the source’s motives, how the source got the information and how reliable and complete the information is.
On the other hand, a reporter might learn from documents or from other sources that a particular source knows exactly what happened, or you might speculate that a potential source should know something. You approach the person and he is reluctant to talk.
Perhaps privacy laws, professional ethics or official policies prevent the source from talking. Perhaps the source doesn’t trust the media in general or you in particular. Perhaps the source fears for her job or has another valid reason to avoid talking publicly. You still need to assess the credibility of this source. She may be honest but only partially informed. Motive is less of a concern when you deal with a reluctant source. It’s still a concern, though. Perhaps the source is playing hard to get but really has an agenda. Or perhaps the source is reluctant because she’s unsure of her information.
Consider the differences between the sources Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used in Watergate and the sources Robert Novak used in the Valerie Plame story and the sources the New York Times used in its reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Woodward and Bernstein sought out sources who didn’t want to talk to them. They persuaded the people to talk, sought verification and pieced together one of the greatest stories in journalism history. With one notable exception, their information was right on the mark. Despite all the recent reference to Deep Throat as “leaking” information, he was a reluctant source, at first only confirming what Woodward already had and steering him in general directions, rather than giving him specific information.
By contrast, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby clearly were passing the Valerie Plame tip (even if they didn’t name her) along to anyone who would listen. While that tip was accurate, Novak missed the real news value of the tip: not that Joseph Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent, but that the White House was using the media to punish Wilson, even at the risk of breaking the law.
In the WMD case, the confidential information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was simply wrong or at best outdated. The Times (and other news outlets) failed in assessing the reliability of the sources and in considering their motives.
Be demanding of official sources
The status of a source is important in deciding whether to grant confidentiality. If you’re an education reporter, you might need to grant confidentiality to a teacher to get an interview about a student disciplinary matter. Privacy laws might prohibit the teacher from disclosing this information (even if you’re not naming him in the story), so he has a valid reason to request confidentiality.
On the other hand, if the superintendent wants to go off the record to discuss some matters of district finances, you should be more demanding. She’s the chief executive officer of the school district. She’s responsible for the budget and her duties include informing the public about district finances. Why in the world should you let her go off the record about official district business at all?
Why would you give Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, or Scooter Libby, chief of staff to the vice president, confidentiality to release damaging information about someone whose husband had criticized the administration? The abuse of power is a bigger story than the story they are peddling.
Explore motives and discuss the kind of information a source, especially an official source, wants to disclose before you grant confidentiality.
Resist “background” briefings
Journalists, especially in Washington, have let public officials get away with doing “background” briefings, where they provide official explanations that journalists can’t attribute to them by name. The journalists express resentment at the rules, yet they play along, fearing that other journalists will beat them on an important story if they boycott on principle.
Consider how often officials give you inaccurate or unreliable information on the record. Why should you trust them when they aren’t even standing by the information they’re giving you? Would that time be better spent pursuing more reliable sources? Or could you attend the briefings for tips but not publish the information from a briefing unless you can verify it?
Victims deserve special consideration
A newspaper with a strong policy against granting confidentiality to sources may make exceptions in cases of victims of sexual assault and other crimes. Many victims of sex crimes will not talk at all unless they are granted confidentiality.
Still, you need to discuss how to identify the victim in the story. Fictitious names might raise questions with the reader as to the truthfulness of other information. Ask the victim if you can identify her by her first name. Or perhaps a middle name or nickname (noting in the story that this is her middle name or nickname).
I wrote extensively about sexual abuse and often got people to let me use their middle names. In multiple stories, I wrote about sexual abuse victims who had changed their names, either because of marriage or for other reasons. I was able to use their former names but not their current names.
This provides a measure of privacy for the victim while still giving the story more authenticity and keeping it fully truthful. If you can’t get a name to use, consider a description rather than a false name: The bookkeeper or grandmother.
Try to get them on the record
Your initial grant of confidentiality is not the last word. You should tell the source that you will try later to get him on the record. And then you should do it.
Eric Nalder, a two-time Pulitzer winner for the Seattle Times, likes to “ratchet” reluctant sources onto the record. At the end of the interview, which was conducted on the basis of confidentiality, he finds a fairly harmless quote and asks the source whether she minds saying that on the record. Usually the source will agree. Then Nalder tries with a slightly more useful quote: If you can say that on the record, surely it’s OK to go on the record with this. Sometimes you can ratchet a whole interview onto the record that way.
In especially sensitive cases, such as sexual abuse victims, it sometimes works to tell the character in advance that he can decide after the interview whether it’s on the record. This overcomes the reluctance to do the interview and gives you a chance in the interview to win the character’s trust and get everything on the record. (More on this technique in my related post on a story about difficult pregnancies.)
Do “scoops” justify confidentiality?
Journalists often say they use confidential sources to get information that they couldn’t otherwise get in the paper. But frequently we really use confidential sources to break stories a cycle earlier than the competition – to be the first to report that a coach is being fired or hired or to break the news before the press conference scheduled for the next morning.
If you’re really going to get tougher about using anonymous sources, should you consider passing on these stories, which the reader is going to know pretty soon anyway?
Sometimes these confidential sources are wrong, too. Basketball fans remember the stories, based on confidential sources, reporting authoritatively during last year’s NBA finals that Larry Brown was going to be president of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He ended up deciding to coach the Knicks.
More on confidential sources
If you’re interested in this issue, I encourage you to read my three accompanying posts:
Factors to consider in granting confidentiality to sources (my 2013 discussion of these issues)
Use confidential sources to get on-the-record interviews (my story of how I used information from unnamed second-hand sources to get reluctant first-hand sources to talk on the record)
Telling stories of abortion or difficult births (how I got people on the record about a difficult topic by giving them an unusual option)