EJN Report on Challenges for Journalism in the post-truth era

Ethical Ground Rules for Handling Sources

Aidan White

Good journalism is only ever as good as our sources of information. Most of those sources are personal, many are official, and some will be anonymous whistle-blowers. Together they provide reporters with the lifeblood of their trade – reliable, accurate and truthful information.

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.

Picture of arrow drawn on along a road
ImageFlow / Shutterstock.com

Some questions that the ethical journalist will ask in establishing good relations with a source include:

  • Have I clarified with my source the basis of our relations and have I been fully transparent about my intentions?

  • Have I taken care to protect the source – for instance if they are a young person or someone in vulnerable circumstances – to ensure they are aware of the potential consequences of publication of the information they give?

  • Am I confident the source fully understands the conditions of our interview and what I mean by off-the-record, on background, not-for attribution, or other labels?

  • If a source asks for conditions before agreeing to an interview, what are my limits?

  • Would I pay for a source’s expenses related to an interview? What legitimate costs could be paid?

  • Would I agree to provide legal representation?

Of paramount importance is the need for journalists to reassure sources that their identity will be protected. But often this is easier said than done.

Protection of sources is well recognised in international law as a key principle underpinning press freedom. It has been specifically recognised by the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

Journalists and news media should establish guidelines and internal rules that help protect sources. Reporters may benefit from a clause in their contracts or agreements that clearly states their duties and obligations. National Public Radio in the United States has a clause in its guidelines that spells it out:

“Journalists must not turn over any notes, audio or working materials from their stories or productions, nor provide information they have observed in the course of their production activities to government officials or parties involved in or considering litigation. If such materials or information are requested in the context of any governmental, administrative or other legal process this must be reported to the company.”

When faced with the decision to tell or not to tell in these circumstances, journalists must consider the impact of their actions and ask themselves some sharp questions:

  • Who will benefit if this source is revealed?

  • Who will suffer and who will lose?

  • Will a criminal or powerful figure guilty of malpractice escape justice?

  • Is this a case where the police and other investigating authorities are genuinely unable to provide the required information?

  • Will the work of other journalists and the mission of media be compromised by revealing information?

  • Will the public interest be served or not be served by cooperation?

In the end, journalists have to make their own decisions, based upon conscience and their own responsibility, but revealing a source of information is never to be taken lightly.

Don’t Get too Close to the Source

Sometimes journalists make the mistake of getting too close to their source. They sometimes create cosy relations that are ambiguous and can easily undermine the ethical base of their work. Powerful sources have their own agenda and accepting what they say without question crosses an ethical line and compromises newsroom independence.

The New York Times and other major news media in the United States, for instance, were heavily criticised before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 for relying too heavily on anonymous sources of information inside the government. Media coverage was highly deferential despite abundant evidence of the government’s flagrant misuse of intelligence information.

A chief offender was New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who produced stories in 2001 and 2002 about the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq based on false information supplied by unnamed sources. She appeared to accept without question dubious information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq from anonymous sources, including some at the Bush White House prior to the United States invasion in 2003.

Source Review of Content

The issue of who controls the story – the source or the reporter – comes up whenever copy approval is demanded, whether by high-profile and powerful figures or by sources themselves. It was a row at the heart of the falling out between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and some major media over the handling of leaked official documents.

In many countries leading politicians and their spin doctors simply refuse exclusive interviews unless they can sign off on the final article. In Germany, it is accepted practice, even within the elite press, for journalists to submit the quotes they plan to use to politicians and other public figures, although most journalists claim they go along with this only for fact-checking and points of accuracy.

Given these conditions, journalists should ask themselves:

  • Are there potential benefits to the accuracy of the story in allowing a source to review portions or all of it in advance of publication? In particular, are there technical aspects that might be clarified if incorrect?

  • Are there potential pitfalls in doing so? Might the source respond in a manner harmful to the story or to others involved?

  • If the source wants to change something in the story, such as a quote, how will I respond?

Anonymous Sources

Anonymity is a right which should be enjoyed by those who need it and should never be granted routinely to anyone who asks for it. People who may lose their job for whistleblowing; or young children; or women who are the victims of violence and abuse and others who are vulnerable and at risk from exposure are obviously entitled to it, but anonymity is not a privilege to be enjoyed by people who are self-seeking and who benefit by personal gain through keeping their identity secret.

Journalists should ask themselves:

  • What is the likely motivation for demanding anonymity? Does that motivation potentially compromise me and my publication?

  • Are there other methods I can employ to increase credibility while granting anonymity?

  • Is there no other way to get and publish this information? Have I exhausted all other methods and potential sources?

  • Do I or my colleagues have history with this source that speaks to his/her credibility?

  • Have I maximised the level of identification that can be published without revealing the source’s personal identity?

Social Media and User-Generated Content

In today’s digital environment, rumour and speculation circulate freely and knowing what is real and how to verify news and information is essential. Reporters must be alert to the danger of falling for bad information from online sources whether it is user-generated content or social media. Digital-age sourcing is a major challenge, particularly in emergency coverage where rumour and falsehood can quickly add to the tension and uncertainty surrounding traumatic events.

Some questions a reporter might ask, in the case of social media, include:

  • Have I corroborated the origin including location, date and time of images and content that I am using from social media?

  • Have I confirmed that this material is the original piece of content?

  • Have I verified the social media profiles of accounts I am using to avoid use of fake information?

  • Is the account holder known to me and has it been a reliable source in the past?

  • Have I asked direct questions of the content provider to verify the provenance of the information?

  • Are any websites linked from the content?

  • Have we looked for and found the same or similar posts/content elsewhere online?

  • Have I obtained permission from the author or originator to use the material whether pictures, videos or audio content?

  • Have I collaborated with others to verify and confirm the authenticity of content?

In the case of user-generated content:

  • What do I know about the actual origin of this content? Can I verify the source?

  • Are there copyright or legal issues around using the content?

  • Have I ensured that all the information can be used and that the conditions for use are clear, for instance through Creative Commons Licence?

  • Am I confident that there have been no reality offering alterations (eg Photoshop) used?

In the case of sourcing breaking news:

  • Before I report or retweet a development reported elsewhere, how confident am I in its accuracy?

  • Would I potentially cause harm if I reported something before it is established at 100% certainty? Is there potential harm in not reporting it?

  • Have I been careful to question first-hand accounts that can be inaccurate and manipulative, emotional or shaped by faulty memory and limited perspective?

  • Have I triangulated the information with other credible sources?

  • Have I acknowledged that the material I am using can be copied, distributed, and displayed, including derivative works based on it, and have I given credit to the original author and source?

Find out More: Craig Silverman, Editor of Regret the Error at the Poynter Institute, and Media Editor at BuzzFeed, has collaborated with the European Journalism Centre to produce a useful Verification Handbook.

You can read this article in Spanish thanks to FNPI: Preguntas que todo periodista debe hacerse sobre sus fuentes

When Human Rights Trump Protection of Sources

Over the years there have been hundreds of cases when courts and public authorities ordered journalists to hand over material or information that would reveal a source of information. In most cases the ethical reporter will instinctively demur. some will go to jail rather than bet0ray a confidence.

Sometimes there are hard choices to be made. War correspondent Jonathan Randal of the Washington Post, for instance, famously refused to answer a subpoena in 2002 ordering him to appear before the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which was prosecuting war crimes. Randal fought the subpoena with the backing of his paper and won. This action, which was supported by press freedom groups around the world, established some limited legal protection for war correspondents against being forced to give testimony.

But when conscience calls others have been willing to cooperate. Another journalist who reported on the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian, was happy to testify before the tribunal. His evidence helped convict and send to jail some of those responsible for war crimes. He argued that bringing to justice war criminals is a cause in which journalists, like other citizens, have a duty to join.

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Tagged with: Aidan White, Anonymous Sources, Ed Vulliamy, Ethics and Sources, Ethics in the News, Handling sources, Hate Speech | Hate Spin, Jonathan Randal, Whistleblowing