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:
What is the source’s reason?
Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote an excellent story Sunday about the lame explanations news reports give of sources’ reasons for not being identified.
Before I grant confidentiality to a source, we’re going to have a detailed discussion of her reasons for not wanting to avoid accountability. And I’ll use that word. I’ll tell the source that my stories are more credible and my sources more accountable when I use their names.
Sometimes this discussion reveals that the source isn’t confident enough in what he is saying to stand behind it. You need to know that. Maybe the source isn’t sharing first-hand information. In that case, you need to ask the source to help you get to the original source. You can build credibility with the source by saying that you don’t use second-hand sources and ask this person’s help in identifying and/or reaching the original source.
If the reason sounds lame, push back on the source and see whether you can talk her into going on the record. Be willing to walk away from a source whose reason is so lame that you doubt his credibility.
Can you get or verify the information elsewhere?
Ask the source who else might have the information, or whether documentation exists. If the source can give you the documentation, you never have to name the source or use an unnamed source; you just cite the documents.
If someone else has the information, try that person to see if she will speak for the record.
If a person is the only source for a piece of information, you might have a stronger reason to grant confidentiality.
What is the information the source is providing?
The more important the information is, the more willing I’m going to be to make a deal. If the information doesn’t seem very important, I encourage taking one of two approaches:
- Tell the source you don’t want to talk unless it’s on the record.
- Tell the source you’d like to hear the information for background purposes but you’re not likely to use it without a name. It might help you understand the issue better or lead you to another source.
You can’t always get a good idea before granting confidentiality about what the information is. Sometimes you can go to option 1 during the interview, saying that if this is as good as it gets, you don’t want to continue talking off the record. It’s more likely in this case that you go to option 2, thanking the source but saying you’re not likely to use this information unless you can attribute it by name.
Is the source dishing opinions?
I can’t imagine why a journalist would publish opinions, especially critical opinions, from an unnamed source. If a source gives you information, you can seek documentation or verification from other sources. You can describe how the source knows the information, giving credibility to the information. Information has value, regardless of its source.
But the value of an opinion is entirely dependent on the person holding the opinion. A person who criticizes others and won’t stand behind the opinions with his name is a coward and journalists shouldn’t honor those opinions by publishing them.
Is the source eager or reluctant?
I am much more willing to grant confidentiality to a source I have approached who is reluctant to talk to me than to a source who approaches me with information he hopes I’ll publish. I wrote extensively about this in a companion piece about my use of unnamed sources in a story on the Lawrence Phillips domestic abuse case and in a 2010 post about a Washington Post story.
Is the source powerful or vulnerable?
I am more willing to grant confidentiality to a vulnerable source than a powerful one. But keep in mind that power and vulnerability are both relative.
Mark Felt was a powerful man as associate director of the FBI. But he also was vulnerable when he was confirming information about wrongdoing that involved the White House as Bob Woodward‘s famed “Deep Throat” source in the Watergate stories. Also, he was reluctant rather than eager.
When Scooter Libby was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, I might have considered him vulnerable — and thus a whistleblower deserving of protection — if he were trying to tell me about wrongdoing by the vice president or the White House. But when he and (also powerful) Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage were abusing his (and Cheney’s) power by leaking classified information for political purposes (about a vulnerable CIA agent, Valerie Plame), journalists who granted confidentiality were failing to hold them accountable. The bigger story there was the crime these powerful officials were committing, not Plame’s relationship to Joseph Wilson.
Journalists have been too lenient with too many powerful people who seek to avoid accountability by doing their sniping from behind journalists. I think you’re better off missing a few stories than getting into this kind of abusive relationship. And keep in mind that some of the stories you get from these sources may be false or misleading because the sources are leaking partial or even false information because they aren’t accountable.
Should you join background briefings?
I don’t see a lot of benefit in background briefings, where powerful people talk without accountability and powerful journalists play their game. I don’t think the stories have much benefit and I think the use of unnamed sources for marginal stories hurts our credibility.
I agree with the AP News Values & Principles, which say, “AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record.”
I would encourage going a step further in most circumstances and boycott the briefing unless you know the information is unusually valuable. I’d rather spend my time getting exclusive on-the-record stories than joining other media in an exercise that hurts our credibility.
What if a spokesperson wants confidentiality?
I’m not inclined to quote a spokesperson without using her name. If she’s speaking for an official, organization or company, she should be on the record. I blogged about this last year.
A rare exception might be when a spokesperson is giving me information that doesn’t relate directly to the official or organization she represents. Or I’ll certainly grant confidentiality for a spokesperson who is revealing negative information about the person or organization he represents.
When I blogged about this last year, I got some pushback from reporters who deal with spokespeople whose organizations require that they speak only as a “spokesperson.” (I remember dealing with some State Department flacks who gave me that line.) My response is that mouthpiece statements often aren’t that important anyway. I’d rather bolster our credibility by saying that a spokesperson wouldn’t give her name and the reasons didn’t meet our standards for confidentiality. You do that a few times and the organizations you deal with will decide that they want to get their viewpoints out.
Are the source and the information worth going to jail (and is that a risk)?
If your story has a federal jurisdiction, or if your state doesn’t have a shield law (or a good one), you need to consider whether law enforcement or someone in a civil court case will try to force you to reveal your source.
Then you need to decide whether this story, the information the source is providing and the source himself is worth going to jail for.
Keep in mind that this is a calculation you need to make before granting confidentiality, not just before you publish. Judith Miller went to jail protecting Libby and the Times had not even published any information that Libby gave Miller.
It’s also worth noting that not every story based on confidential sources presents the threat of going to jail. In the Lawrence Phillips story, I don’t think I needed to worry about law enforcement coming after me. But conceivably his victim could have sued him (she did) or the University of Nebraska, and I could have been subpoenaed in that suit and ordered to reveal sources. That seemed a distant threat (I was not subpoenaed) and I thought the story and the sources were worth the risk.
But many stories present no risk at all: Your local team is going to hire a new coach and you have the news from unnamed sources before the official announcement.
How well can you protect the source?
A good rule of journalism and life is that you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep. So, if you’re promising confidentiality to a source, especially one who might draw the attention of law enforcement or intelligence agencies, consider how you keep that promise.
If a law enforcement agency seizes your phone records, will they lead directly to your source? If an intelligence agency eavesdrops on your phone calls or snoops in your emails, will that lead to the source? What if the source’s employer checks the records for her cellphone or checks her emails?
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in secrecy technology, but a journalist promising confidentiality today in a situation that could attract scrutiny by law enforcement, intelligence agencies or employers should learn about secrecy technology and take simple steps to protect your relationship with your source. Meet in person when you can, in places where you can have some privacy. Discuss how to communicate, if at all, electronically. The situation will decide which options are best for you:
- Is it best (and sufficient) for either or both of you to communicate using personal (rather than work) computers and/or phones? (Remember the seizure of AP phone records.)
- Do you need to set up special email and/or social media accounts to use in communicating?
- Do you need to use a “burner” cellphone? (Don’t be too sure that it will protect your source.)
- Do you need to use encryption in any emails or documents you share?
I’d welcome a guest post from someone with more expertise in protecting journalists’ communication with sources, or links to the best pieces you’ve seen on the subject. Update: Jeremy Barr has a piece on Poynter today about encrypting email.
Do you trust this source?
Relations between journalists and sources require trust. The source has to trust the journalist to understand the story and report it accurately and fairly. The journalist has to trust the source to tell the truth.
Trust for a source depends on three things:
- Your assessment of the source’s personal trustworthiness.
- Your inquiry about how the source knows what he claims to know. An honest source can still be mistaken or have a faulty memory. “How do you know that?” and “How else do you know that?” are the most important questions in journalism and they are essential to ask when dealing with confidential sources.
- Your ability to verify what the source tells you. You don’t have to make your demands for documentation and other sources a challenge to the source’s veracity. Everything you can verify through other sources is something that you don’t have to pin on this source (or this source alone) and something that is harder to track back to the source.
Sometimes you can’t verify all the facts a source tells you. But if you verify some of the facts, you gain confidence in the source’s honesty and accuracy. For instance, when I was working on a story about allegations of sexual abuse by a counselor against a teen-ager years earlier, there were no witnesses to what the youth said transpired between them. But I was able to verify other details of the victim’s story. And I found others who alleged similar abuse, and their descriptions of the abuser’s behavior strongly resembled the story of the first accuser.
Will the information come out eventually anyway?
A lot of stories based on unnamed sources are stories that will become public in a day (or pretty soon) anyway. As I mentioned before, if you get the news of a new coach (or school superintendent or police chief) the day before it’s going to be announced, you have almost no risk. But you also don’t have much of a scoop.
I’m not suggesting that a journalist and a newsroom who believe they have nailed down such a story based on unnamed sources should refrain from breaking the story. But I’d always ask whether a short-lived scoop is worth the message that it sends to other potential sources or what it says to readers about your reliance on unnamed sources.
OK, I know you’re usually going to answer “yes” to those questions. So I’ll encourage you to nail down as much of the story as possible on actual sources. Can you verify that a university donor’s plane has flown to the city where the new coach lives? Or that the new coach has checked into a hotel in your town? Can you reach some players or assistant coaches on the coach’s old team (or check their social media accounts) to see if they’ve been told? They won’t be as likely to honor a request to keep the secret until the announcement. You might be able to get someone else on the record.
And if the announcement isn’t that big a deal, I’d consider whether your credibility is worth occasionally letting an announcement that’s based on unnamed sources pass. My accompanying old workout handout, “You can quote me on that,” mentions a story (it’s a few years old; you might be able to remember others more recently) where “scoops” on an upcoming announcement, based on unnamed sources, were wrong.
Be specific about terms of your agreement
When you discuss confidentiality, you need to be specific about the terms of your agreement. Be sure that the source understands you’re going to seek documentation and/or other on-the-record sources for the information.
Discuss whether you can attribute the information in some way to this source or whether this is just a tip.
If you can attribute, discuss how you will refer to the source. Don’t accept a description that’s inaccurate or misleading, such as Judith Miller’s agreement to talk to Libby as a “former Hill staffer.” That was technically accurate but deliberately misleading. After taking heat for agreeing to such a misleading description, Miller split hairs by noting that she never published anything identifying him that way and wouldn’t have. But even the agreement to talk to him on that basis undercuts her credibility with the source.
I would prefer an identification that’s overly broad (an “administration source”) to one that’s misleading. Especially if the person doesn’t agree to a more specific or helpful description (“a close aide to the vice president”), I am more interested in telling specifically how the person knows the information than who he is. Negotiate what you can say about how the person knows (“according to a person who has read the report”).
I have never agreed to use a fictitious name for a source (“not her real name”). I think publishing something fictitious undercuts your efforts to publish truthful stories. When I interviewed victims of sexual abuse who didn’t want to be identified, I asked to identify them by middle names (and to say in the story that I was using their middle names) and most agreed. In a few cases, a childhood nickname or a birth name of someone now known by another name worked.
Discuss what will happen if the source is lying. Would you reveal a source who lies to you? (Keep in mind that sometimes a source has misinformation; not every bad tip you get is a lie.)
Discuss what will happen if you’re subpoenaed. Would you go to jail for the source? Would the source come forward in that circumstance (don’t expect that if the source is breaking the law by giving you this information)?
After you talk, try again to get the source on the record
At the end of an interview, I have asked sources again about going on the record for some or all of what they’ve said (see my description of Eric Nalder‘s “ratcheting” technique in “Getting personal“).
I also will go back to the source after I’ve written the story and try to get specific quotes or bits of information on the record.
Avoid the term ‘anonymous sources’
I discuss this at more length in “You can quote me on that,” but I think it’s important to say it here, too: We undercut our credibility and we are being inaccurate most of the time when we use the terms “anonymous sources” or “anonymity,” (as Farhi did in his story.) We should vet confidential sources thoroughly. They are not the same as an anonymous commenter on our website or an anonymous caller. We know their identities but we grant them confidentiality.
More on confidential sources
If you’re interested in this issue, I encourage you to read my three accompanying posts:
You can quote me on that (my 2005 workshop handout)
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)
Want to contribute a guest post?
I welcome guest posts either disagreeing with me on issues discussed here or presenting some stories of your own and how you dealt with confidential sources. Or please share in the comments links to other helpful posts on these issues.