- What does an “anonymous source” mean?
- On what basis should we grant confidentiality to a source?
- What understandings should you have when granting confidentiality?
- What if a spokesperson doesn’t want to be identified?
- Should you take part in background briefings?
- How can you protect confidentiality if you or the source might be subject to electronic surveillance?
Use of confidential sources is an area where many news organizations’ policies and practices don’t necessarily match up. Many news organizations have policies that say they rarely use confidential sources, but in practice they frequently use them. Whether you favor using confidential sources heavily because of the tips and information people will provide if you don’t name them, or whether you favor seldom or never using confidential sources, because you don’t consider them credible, top editors in any news organization should discuss their standards with their staffs and try to achieve consistency in how and why you grant confidentiality.
Often among journalists and especially among our critics, the term for sources we don’t name is “anonymous sources,” or we explain in a story that the source requested “anonymity.” But this term can be misleading or even inaccurate in ways that undercut the news organization’s credibility. The truth is that few, if any, news stories ever actually use any information from truly anonymous sources: people whose identities are unknown to the journalists or the news organization.
Truly anonymous sources would be people who call us on the telephone with tips and refuse to give their names, anonymous commenters on our websites or someone contacting us through email or social media (or even in person) who refuse to identify themselves to us. Journalists get valuable tips in these ways but shouldn’t publish anything based on these sources. If you publish a story at all, you should use the tip as a starting point and find sources you trust — whether they will go on the record or not — on which to base a story.
This may appear a matter of semantics, but anything involving unnamed sources affects the credibility of your stories. And every tiny step you can take to assure the reader or viewer that you have tried to use reliable sources is important. Using terms such as “confidential” sources probably doesn’t build much confidence, but the word “anonymous” or “anonymity” can hurt your credibility, and isn’t accurate from your standpoint. So consider avoiding those terms.
Journalists using unnamed sources usually know the sources well. If they are not sources you have used before, you should question them extensively about how they know what they are telling you and why they can’t go on the record. You might research their credentials to judge their veracity. Because of your pledge of confidentiality, you generally can’t vet sources by asking others about their credibility, but sometimes a confidential source can put you in touch with a trusted contact of yours who can vouch for her credibility. Sometimes a source you trust leads you to a good source that insists on remaining confidential.
Steve Buttry discussed this issue at greater length in his blog post “You didn’t hear this from me…”
When to grant confidentiality
Here are other factors to consider when determining whether to grant confidentiality and how to handle such requests:
What is the source’s reason for wanting not to be identified?
Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote a story in 2013 about the weak explanations news reports give of sources’ reasons for not being identified.
Before a journalist grants confidentiality, you should have a detailed discussion of the source’s reasons for wanting to avoid accountability, which is what happens when you don’t name sources. Tell the source that your stories are more credible and your sources more accountable when you use their names and gain a thorough understanding of the source’s motivation.
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 source’s reason for wanting anonymity sounds weak, 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 poor that you doubt the source’s credibility.
Is the information available 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, 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.
You may wish to write, when quoting unnamed sources, that the person “insisted” on not being named. Saying that, rather than “requested not to be named,” emphasizes that you do not grant anonymity easily. It makes clear that if you had not granted confidentiality, you would not have the information.
What information is the source providing?
The more important the information is, the more willing a journalist will normally be to make a deal. If the information doesn’t seem very important, consider 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 opt for the first option 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 will end up going to the second option, thanking the source but saying you’re not likely to use this information unless you can attribute it by name.
Is the source dishing opinion?
Information from unnamed sources has some value if they are telling the truth. 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.
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.
Steve Buttry addressed this issue at greater length in a 2005 blog post “Unnamed sources should have unpublished opinions.”
Is the source eager or reluctant?
You should be more willing to grant confidentiality to a source you approach but is reluctant to talk than to a source who approaches you with information he hopes you’ll publish.
When you initiate the conversation, you are trying to persuade the source to help you with your story. Confidentiality is a technique you can use to start the conversation. You may already understand why the source is reluctant to be identified. You may be able to talk the person into going on the record about some or all of the interview if you use confidentiality to start the conversation and then get time to build some trust.
But when a source approaches you with a tip and wants to stay unnamed, it may be that you’re being played. In many cases, the source who approaches you isn’t the real source, but a pawn. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grant confidentiality. The source might give you important information that you can verify elsewhere. One approach when dealing with an eager source who initiates a conversation is to grant confidentiality for the conversation but make clear that you may not publish the information unless the person will go on the record or unless you can verify it independently. Push back, and ask the person why she won’t be identified if she is so eager to get this information published.
Steve Buttry wrote more about these issues in a 2013 post “Use confidential sources to get on-the-record interviews” and in a 2010 post “Power and eagerness should guide reporters’ confidentiality decisions.”
Is the source powerful or vulnerable?
Journalists should be 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, as Bob Woodward‘s famed “Deep Throat” source in the Watergate stories, when he was confirming information about wrongdoing that involved the White House. Also, he was reluctant rather than eager.
But other officials abuse their power by leaking classified information for political purposes.
Journalists have been lenient with many powerful people who seek to avoid accountability by doing their sniping from behind journalists. You may be better off missing a few stories than getting into this kind of abusive relationship. Keep in mind that some of the stories you get from these sources may be false or misleading; the sources are leaking partial or even false information because they aren’t accountable.
Steve Buttry discussed this issue in a 2010 post “Power and eagerness should guide reporters’ confidentiality decisions.”
Are the source and information worth going to jail for?
If good laws to protect confidential sources do not exist in your region, 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. Reporters have been ordered by courts to reveal sources they did not even cite in stories.
It’s also worth noting that not every story based on confidential sources presents the threat of going to jail. Many stories present no risk at all (e.g. 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 whether you can 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 company cell phone or checks her emails on her company account?
A journalist who promises confidentiality in a situation that could attract scrutiny by law enforcement, intelligence agencies or employers should learn about secrecy technology and then take simple steps to protect relationships with your sources. 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 determine 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?
- Do you need to set up special email and/or social media accounts for communicating?
- Do you need to use a “burner” cell phone? (Don’t be too sure that it will protect your source.)
- Do you need to use encryption in any emails or documents you share?
- Is there a danger, in your country, that using encryption or other secure technologies could raise officials’ suspicions and lead to increased monitoring of your activities? Alternatively, might a court rule that if you use encryption for some messages, you have no expectation of privacy for those you don’t encrypt?
Jeremy Barr wrote a helpful piece for Poynter, “How journalists can encrypt their email.” However, technologies are constantly changing, so make sure you are using the latest advice available.
Do you trust the 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 in 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 among 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 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.
Will the information come out soon anyhow?
A lot of stories based on unnamed sources are stories that will become public in a day (or pretty soon) anyway.
You’re probably going to publish that story in most circumstances, unless you take a hard-line position against ever using unnamed sources. But you should consider whether a short-lived scoop is worth making sources and readers think you’re promiscuous about granting anonymity.
Nail down as much of the story as possible with sources that can be named. For example, 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 local hotel? Can you reach 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.
Be specific about the 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, and avoid agreeing to a description that would be inaccurate or misleading.
An identification that’s overly broad (an “administration source”) is better than one that’s misleading. Particularly if the person doesn’t agree to a more specific or helpful description of who he is (“a close aide to the vice president”), negotiate what you can say about how the person knows (“according to a person who has read the report”).
When granting confidentiality for intimate personal stories, such as interviews with victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse, you might persuade a source to identify herself by her middle name (and to say in the story that you are using the middle name). Maybe a person will agree to use a childhood nickname or a birth name she no longer uses.
Some organizations will use a false name for a source (stating in the story, “not her real name”). Other news outlets take the position that they will carry nothing that is false, for any reason.
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 this if the source is breaking the law by giving you this information.)
Should you take part in background briefings?
Powerful people sometimes talk with journalists in background briefings where they discuss issues on condition that they won’t be identified. Some journalists participate, but others have decided that the briefings don’t provide enough value to risk their credibility.
The Associated Press’ Statement of News Values and Principles (http://www.ap.org/company/News-Values) says, “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.”
You might consider going a step further in most circumstances and boycotting the briefing unless you know the information is unusually valuable. You can spend your time getting exclusive on-the-record stories rather than joining other media in an exercise that hurts everyone’s credibility.
What if a spokesperson wants confidentiality?
Journalists should be especially reluctant to quote a spokesperson without using her name. If she’s speaking for an official, organization or company, she should be on the record.
A rare exception might be when a spokesperson is giving you information that doesn’t relate directly to the official or organization she represents. You might also have valid reasons to grant confidentiality for a spokesperson who is revealing negative information about the person or organization he represents.
Some reporters deal with spokespeople whose organizations require that they speak only as a “spokesperson.” In these situations, keep in mind that mouthpiece statements often aren’t that important anyway. You might bolster your credibility by saying that a spokesperson wouldn’t give his name and the reasons didn’t meet your organization’s standards for confidentiality. Do that a few times, and the organizations you deal with may decide that they want to get their viewpoints out. You may also write simply that “the company said.”
Steve Buttry blogged about this in a 2012 post “Spokespeople should be named; set the bar high for confidentiality.”
After you talk, try again to get the source on the record.
At the end of an interview, ask sources again about going on the record for some or all of what they’ve said (Steve Buttry describes Eric Nalder’s “ratcheting” technique in his 2005 post “You can quote me on that.”
See also the section in this project on “Sources: Reliability and Attribution.”