Using Confidential Sources
Be especially careful in the use of confidential sources. The reporter's job should be, as fully as possible, to conduct interviews and seek information on the record. The news manager’s job should be to ensure confidential sources are used only when absolutely essential to an important story.
Fulfill all of the following four criteria, then consider the other questions listed below.
- A story that uses confidential sources should be of overwhelming public concern.
- Before offering a source anonymity, you and your news managers must be convinced there is no other way to get the essential information on the record.
- You and your news managers must be convinced the unnamed source has verifiable knowledge of the story. Even if the source cannot be named, the information must be proven true.
- You and your news managers must be willing to publicly describe the source in as detailed a manner as anonymity permits (this may include the source’s political party, agency or workplace affiliation, etc), reveal to the public why the source cannot be named and what, if any, promises the news organization made in order to get the information.
Consider these questions:
- What does the use of a confidential source mean to the factual accuracy and contextual authenticity of your story?
- Does this source deserve the protection of his/her identity? Will revealing the source threaten the safety of the source, their family or their livelihood?
- What legal obligations do you incur by promising not to reveal this source's name? If you are sued, are you willing to go to jail to protect this source? If you are sued, will the source come forward and be named? Is the reluctance justifiable?
- How would viewers/listeners evaluate the same information if they knew the source’s name and motivations?
- If you promised to protect a source’s identity, are you using production techniques that will insure the protection you promised? What if a lawyer subpoenas the raw tapes? Would the person be identifiable in the tape outtakes?
- Do you understand your newsroom's policy on confidentiality before you promise it to sources? Consider a policy that requires you to obtain the consent of your news managers before agreeing to anonymity, and a related policy requiring you reveal the source's identity to news managers before the story involved airs. You should inform your source of this policy and that you might have to identity them to others in your newsroom.
Other points to consider when basing a story on confidential sources:
- When reporting or referencing the work of another news outlet whose story contains an anonymous source, be sure to attribute the information to that outlet and describe its sources as clearly as possible.
- Before accepting information “on background,” “not for attribution” or “off the record,” ensure that you and your source have a shared understanding of what any such terms mean. Be as specific as possible about the level of confidentiality you are providing.
- Create a policy at your station for handling sources who may ask for anonymity after the interview has occurred.
- Journalists should consider these guidelines when analyzing confidential sources as well as persons who do not wish to have their faces on camera or names used in reports.