Ethics at Source

Questions for journalists to answer

By Aidan White

The relationship between journalists and their sources is complex and full of ethical pitfalls. In the provocative opening to her splendid 1983 book on the subject, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Janet Malcom targets deceptive journalism:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

But not all journalists are confidence tricksters. Some journalists are awed and occasionally incompetent, but most strive for journalism rooted in transparency, fair-dealing and humanity. Our work is morally defensible, but few will deny that if the measure of good journalism is how we treat sources, then we are not always up to the mark.

Establishing the Ground Rules

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 fully understanding the risks to themselves and to others when they come into the public eye. This is particularly true of people affected by 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 must explain the process of their journalism and why they are covering the story. They should not, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, use subterfuge.

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. In the U.S. there is no federal shield law. State shield laws vary in scope, but the best of them uphold the right of reporters to resist demands to reveal his or her source.

Some questions that the ethical journalist should 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 sources — for instance, a young person or someone in vulnerable circumstances — to ensure that they are aware of the potential consequences to ensure that they are aware of the potential consequences of publication of the information they give?

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

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

  • What might be legitimate costs that could be paid?

  • Would I agree to provide legal representation for a source?

Over the years there have been hundreds of cases when courts and public authorities order journalists to hand over material or information that will reveal a source of information. In most cases the ethical reporter will instinctively demur.

A good example is Jonathan Randal of The Washington Post who famously refused to answer a subpoena in 2002 ordering him to appear before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was prosecuting war crimes. Randal, who had covered the war, 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.

Cases like this highlight why journalists and news media need to establish guidelines and internal rules that help protect their sources. Reporters may bene t from a clause in their contracts or their agreements that clearly state their duties and obligations in this area. NPR has a clause in its guidelines that spells it out:

“NPR 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.”

When faced with the decision to tell or not to tell, 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?

Getting Too Close to the Source

Sometimes journalists make the mistake of getting too close to their source. They create cozy ambiguous relations that undermine the ethical base of their work. Powerful sources have their own agenda, and when reporters accept what they say without question, they cross an ethical line. They also run the risk of being used as convenient vessels for the leaking of information.

Source Review of Content

Sean Penn’s interview with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Mexican narcotics gangster, on the run and accused of murder, was a world exclusive, but some journalists questioned why Rolling Stone allowed Guzmán to approve what would ultimately be published.

Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told The New York Times he was concerned by the decision to give Guzmán access to the article. But ultimately, he said, “scoring an exclusive interview with a wanted criminal is legitimate journalism no matter who the reporter is.”

An interview with one of the world’s most wanted men is certainly a scoop, but can it ever justify abandoning editorial control over a journalist’s work?

The issue of who controls the story — the source or the reporter — comes up whenever copy approval is demanded by high profile and powerful figures.

The questions journalists should ask themselves in such situations include:

  • 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 that should be enjoyed by those who need it: people who may lose their job for whistleblowing or others at risk from exposure. It is not a privilege to be enjoyed by people who are self-seeking and who directly benefit from anonymity.

Journalists should ask themselves questions before granting anonymity:

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

  • Are there 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 potential sources?

  • 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. Digital age sourcing is a major challenge, particularly in emergency coverage where rumour and falsehood can add to tension and uncertainty surrounding traumatic events.

In the case of social media:

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

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

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

  • Is the account holder known, 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 there similar posts or content elsewhere online? Have I obtained permission to use the material?

  • Have I collaborated with others to con rm 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?

  • Am I confident that there have been no reality-offering alterations(e.g.,Photoshop)used?

In the case of sourcing breaking news:

  • Before I report or retweet someone else’s content, am I con dent it is accurate?

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

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

  • Have I triangulated the information provided with other credible sources?

But help is at hand. Craig Silverman, editor of Regret the Error at the Poynter Institute, has collaborated with the European Journalism Centre to produce the useful “Verification Handbook” (verificationhandbook.com).

And in all of this, there is a final but essential question. When using other people’s words, images or content, make sure to give credit where it is due:

The failure to assign the ownership and origin of the information we use is a common failing of students in the age of copy-and- paste, but it’s unforgivable for journalists to plagiarise the work of others. Failing to do so is not just a moral question, it can also lead to legal problems.


This article was first published in the IRE Journal.


Aidan White is Director of the Ethical Journalism Network. Many of the questions and tips set out here were compiled by him and his fellow panelists at last year’s IRE Conference in Philadelphia: David Boardman, Dean, School of Media and Communication, Temple University; Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor, The New York Times; and Wendy Ruderman, Reporter, Philadelphia Daily News.

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