Reporters and Confidential Sources  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2006

Reporters and Confidential Sources   

AJR e-mailed a seven-question survey about confidential sources to journalists who investigate areas such as politics and policy, courts and law, and homeland security. Some of their responses are excerpted below.

By Rachel Smolkin

Related reading:
   » Waivering

1) Should you always protect a source after granting confidentiality? Or are there circumstances in which you shouldn't? (Examples: The source gave misleading information intentionally or unintentionally; the source was trying to smear somebody; the information imparted could affect national security.)

Randy Ludlow, reporter, Columbus Dispatch
Yes. The protection of the identity of confidential services is not open to hedges or negotiation.

Seth Borenstein, national correspondent, Knight Ridder Newspapers
Before Plame, I would have said always protect. But that was such an egregious case of an anonymous smear... If someone tried to do that with me, I wouldn't use it as an anonymous source either not use it at all or push for on the record. So, in the end, I always will protect a source after granting confidentiality, but I will be far more wary in granting the confidentiality.

John Aloysius Farrell, Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor, Denver Post
There is nothing mysterious or formal and no outside rules about confidential sources. A reporter and a source negotiate and reach an agreement that is binding as long as both sides proceed in good faith. If the source breaks the contract, a reporter is free to report the information, if necessary.

2) Has the Plame investigation or other federal leak investigations under way affected the way you deal with anonymous sources? If so, how?

Jack Kresnak, reporter, Detroit Free Press
I've noticed a tightening up of government offices in releasing information I used to get fairly easily. A valuable informal relationship I had with a state attorney here allowed me to gain quick access to a variety of government databases, but recently the elected official in charge ordered no one to speak to the media on or off the record without getting prior approval from the PR types. That's happened in the past, of course, but sources are figuring out that there may be a paper or electronic trail of their conversations with reporters. And they're worried about getting caught.

Joe Demma, investigations editor, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Not yet. But I'm sure it will. This [Patrick] Fitzgerald guy has opened up a whole new can of worms, changing the rules of engagement. Until now you didn't worry about protecting sources except while you were reporting and after you used their information. Ideally, you verify the information independently. Then, the original source becomes moot. But now, nothing is moot. They want to know everyone you talked to.

3) Does your news organization have clear policies on the use of anonymous sources?

Knight Ridder's Borenstein
Yes, and we post it on our Web site.

Robert McClure, reporter, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The policy is not to attribute information to unnamed sources except in exceptional circumstances... In practice, I don't think we enforce that policy as rigorously as we should.

Denver Post's Farrell
Yes. Anonymous sources should be used only when necessary. And especially not to give one side or the other in an argument a chance to level a clever, anonymous cheap shot, no matter how witty the quip.

4) Do you share the identities of confidential sources with your editors? (Or, if you are an editor, do you ask your reporters to share sources' identities with you?)

Dispatch's Ludlow
Reporters are asked to share the identities of sources with editors, who also are bound by the pledge of confidentiality.

Peter Eisler, investigative reporter, USA Today
Yes, to a limited extent. In the past, I've always shared at least some information, such as the general rank and responsibilities of the source within a given agency, etc. I've provided names when asked, but only to top-level editors and only with the understanding that the names will not be shared.

5) Are you confident that your news organization will back you if you are subpoenaed?

Thomas Maier, investigative reporter, Newsday
If I am subpoenaed, I'm reasonably confident that Newsday will represent me. However, in today's corporate environment, I think investigative reporters are foolish not to include editorial management in every possible decision-making act so that the news outlet ultimately takes full responsibility.

Lucy Morgan, senior correspondent, St. Petersburg Times
Yes. I've had a lot of experience being subpoenaed and sentenced to jail so I am confident the Times will defend me... (I have been a Florida reporter for 40 years, was sentenced to jail in 1973 for refusing to divulge sources. We appealed and won at the Florida Supreme Court in 1976 in a case establishing a limited privilege for reporters in this state. We won a Pulitzer in 1985 for a series on a sheriff who later sued us for libel and lost at trial.)

Sun-Sentinel's Demma
Could I envision a scenario that my editors would back me to the hilt without flinching? Sure. Could I envision another scenario where they throw me out of the wagon to slow down the wolves? Yes. But, if my editors approve my actions and my actions and motives are as pure as I have reported to them and that gets me subpoenaed, I expect they would back me. But, I would not expect their backing if my dealings were less than ethical or I was caught with some hidden agenda.

6) Does your news organization have a policy that you know of regarding storage and ownership of notes?

Knight Ridder's Borenstein
I don't know of one. My personal policy is that I save everything for a few months on a very messy desk that has enveloped the floor and neighboring desks (think kudzu but with paper). And then once a year whether I need to or not (usually when my editors threaten me with bodily harm), I pitch everything.

St. Petersburg Times' Morgan
We generally leave the storage and retention of notes up to reporters. I keep mine. Some don't. When we were sued for libel some years ago I had more than 14,000 documents, and our lawyers felt they helped us win the libel case.

Post-Intelligencer's McClure
I believe what the lawyers have advised us is this: Have a policy, and follow it. My policy is to hang on to any notes that I think might be helpful to me in future stories

7) If a source signs a waiver of confidentiality, is that a valid reason to identify the source? Is a blanket waiver enough, or do you need individual, specific permission from your source?

Sharyl Attkisson, investigative correspondent, CBS News
I would think a voluntary waiver would certainly be a powerful argument for identifying a source. I'm not sure what a blanket waiver would say, or when one would be issued, versus a specific permission, but I would think a blanket waiver, depending upon wording, would be enough. I would consult with my attorneys on this matter.

St. Petersburg Times' Morgan
I would need specific permission from a source, and I would not seek it myself. The source would have to come to me with the offer.

George Anastasia, reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer
It would depend on the circumstances and the story. My preference would be individual, specific permission. And even then I'm not sure I would be comfortable giving up a name.

Sun-Sentinel's Demma
No and No. I would need individual, specific and direct permission from the source in person, naked in a steam room with a heavy metal band blasting and a blindfolded 5-year-old banging on a pot with a soup spoon. No winking and no suggestion that we're not going to tell the whole truth.