Tag Archives: anonymous sources

Telegraph’s scoops aren’t telling the whole story

The New York Times this weekend explored the London Daily Telegraph’s British-MPs-exploit-expense-accounts scoop (or, rather, scoops – they dished out the details bit by bit over several days, milking their investigation for all it was worth). It spreads the rumour that the Telegraph paid for the information (a faux pas, at least among the upper class of the British press).

The Telegraph, which doesn’t confirm nor deny the rumour (usually an indication that it’s true), throws in this quote (emphasis mine):

“One of the great rules of journalism is that you don’t discuss your sources, so long as you establish the information is reliable and in the public interest,” said Benedict Brogan, assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph, in an e-mailed statement.

Is that really a rule of journalism, much less a great one?

I don’t think so. Some sources require protection, the Deep Throat-like ones who come forward with important information but can’t be identified because they could lose their jobs or worse for leaking something to the media. But recently the granting of anonymity has become commonplace, given to random people on the street giving their opinion about things because they just don’t want their full names in the paper. (Not that knowing their names really changes anything, mind you.)

Not discussing where you got your scoops isn’t a great rule of journalism, it’s an unfortunate consequence of newspaper competition, and one of the places where journalism takes a back seat to self-marketing and self-congratulation.

I’m not necessarily saying that the Telegraph shouldn’t have paid for the information, provided it treated it with the highest amount of skepticism. Nor am I necessarily saying it shouldn’t disclose who or what sold them the information (though a discussion of their motivation would certainly be helpful). These are grey areas of journalism ethics.

I’m saying that when the Telegraph hides this information from the public, it shouldn’t be proud of it.

Journalism died today

OK, maybe I’m being a bit over-dramatic. But if you’re considering leaking a document anonymously to the media, confident that you’ve been promised your name will be kept secret by the journalist, think again.

Today, the National Post lost an appeal which pitted confidentiality of sources against the interests of law enforcement. And the court has ordered the Post to reveal the identity of an anonymous source.

The case stems from the Shawinigate controversy (I’m not a fan of “-gate” terms, but this one just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?), in which then-prime minister Jean Chrétien had apparently helped to secure a generous loan for a hotel in his home riding, next to a golf course he technically still had a financial interest in.

Specifically, the case concerns a document received by Post reporter Andrew McIntosh, which appeared to be a loan application from the hotel. McIntosh gave his source a guarantee of anonymity in exchange for the document. But when he attempted to verify it with the bank, the bank declared it to be a forgery and began an investigation.

That investigation led to a court order for the Post to produce the document and the envelope it came in. The Crown wanted to determine the identity of the alleged forger and potentially file charges.

But (according to McIntosh) the source of the document claims he received it anonymously through the mail (hence McIntosh’s need to authenticate it), so if this is true the source would not have been the forger.

The ruling by the Ontario court of appeal argues that the interest of law enforcement to investigate a forgery intended to bring down a sitting prime minister outweighs the Post’s need to protect its sources.

In it, the court agrees with the Crown that the documents themselves are important evidence, and that the leak itself is the crime they’re investigating. Insert reference to the Valerie Plame scandal here, which also wasn’t very friendly to the media’s anonymous sources.

A key phrase comes in para. 75:

(Section 2(b) of the Charter, which guarantees freedom of the press) does not guarantee that journalists have an automatic right to protect the confidentiality of their sources.

Similarly, in para. 79:

The journalist-confidential source relationship is not protected by a class privilege. However […] the confidentiality of the relationship between a journalist and the journalist’s source may be protected on a case-by-case basis.

In para. 94:

Journalists can never guarantee confidentiality. There will be some cases – and this is one of them – where the privilege cannot be recognized. Refusing to recognize the privilege in appropriate cases will not, in our view, cause media sources to “dry-up”.

Nice to see the court is so confident. But to me, this ruling seems to say that a journalist can be forced to give me up if there’s a reasonable belief (whether it’s true or not) that knowing my identity may be important to the police investigating a crime.

Considering how many confidential leaks involve some issues of legality, I could certainly see more people clamming up about important issues of public interest in the belief that they could be prosecuted, fired or otherwise be punished for bringing it to light.

Confidential sources are confidential, except when the government decides it wants to know.

The judgment also includes a dig at new media* includes an argument from the Crown which suggests that new media journalists aren’t journalists, in para. 98:

[The Crown submits that …] Today, many persons, especially by using the internet, may be called “journalists” or “the press” because they disseminate information to the public, yet may not merit the journalist-confidential source privilege.

We reject the Crown’s first contention.  The case-by-case approach to privilege does not require us to establish the boundaries of legitimate journalism.

So feel free to ignore what I’m saying here. Because according to the Ontario court of appeal, I’m probably not a journalist.*

*I totally misread the judgment originally and read a summary of the Crown’s argument as the judgment of the court. My apologies.


It’s time to re-think anonymous sources

Anonymous sources are important tools for journalists. They can provide information that changes the course of history (insert obligatory Deep Throat reference here), usually in the form of an insider whose conscience gets the better of them.

For example, an article in The Link this week, which talks to an anonymous member of Concordia University’s Board of Governors about events that happened in closed-door meetings. Because the source is violating a trust in publicizing such information, there’s a legitimate reason to keep that source’s identity secret. And because the issue of Concordia’s president is an important one in the university community, the issue is of sufficient importance to base an article mainly on the information provided by such a source.

But anonymity can also be used for less altruistic purposes, like politicians smearing mud about their opponents while staying squeaky clean. (Henry Kissinger was notorious for this)

This week, journalists from La Presse were ordered by a judge to divulge the sources of information about Adil Charkaoui. Charkaoui, living under a “security certificate” which allows the government to restrict freedoms without presenting any evidence to the accused, is suing the government and trying to get all the information about him released. He says this information is entirely false.

The use of anonymous sources has become more prevalent in reporting. The phrase “spoke on condition his name not be used” is all over the place, many times for information that doesn’t advance the course of the story at all. A reporter writing about an untimely death goes to the home and finds nobody there. He then goes to the neighbour’s place, and gets a quote or two on condition of anonymity. The quote is the same generic “he was always a good kid” stuff that everyone says, but this particular source just isn’t crazy about having his name in the paper. Is anonymity really necessary in this case?

In recent years, newspapers have started implementing rules about anonymous sources, the most visible being that articles must state the reason a source has been left anonymous. Unfortunately, in most cases that explanation turns out to be “spoke on condition his name not be used” or “spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject” or something similar.

It’s time to start re-thinking how we use anonymous sources, understanding that they diminish our credibility, especially when it’s later discovered the source was wrong or outright lied. I wouldn’t go so far as to ban them outright, as some news organizations have done, but I would make sure certain rules are enforced (and most of these are enforced by professional news agencies):

  • Make every effort to get sources to go on the record with information. “This is off the record” isn’t a one-way conversation, it has to be an agreement with the reporter, and it should be done for a compelling reason.
  • Provide information about the source (like “senior White House aide”) so we know where they’re coming from.
  • Investigate the reliability of the source. Refuse to publish information anonymously from sources whose reliability is doubtful or who are clearly attempting to manipulate the media. Do not accept blind anonymous information (documents left in a paper bag) unless that information is verified.
  • Investigate the reliability of the information. Require corroboration for all anonymous material. Do not print anonymous rumours, no matter how many anonymous sources it comes from. Do not agree to anonymity when the information is self-serving.
  • Verify all anonymously-obtained documents through an official source. They can be faked.
  • Disclose the identity of all anonymous sources to an editor (this helps avoid fabrications). Require editor approval before an anonymous source is used.
  • Provide information about the source’s agenda if relevant (and the reason a source comes forward anonymously is always relevant). If information about a Liberal MP comes from a Conservative one, this should be noted (and be subjected to even greater scrutiny).
  • Verify the information provided using official, reliable sources. Avoid relying on the anonymous source if the information can be obtained elsewhere. (Even if this is done, note that it originally came from an anonymous source.)
  • Include why the source requested anonymity (and make sure it’s a damn good reason).
  • Do not provide anonymous sources for opinion or conjecture.
  • Avoid quoting anonymous sources directly. Don’t quote an anonymous source just because the quote is interesting.
  • Make the agreement contingent on the information being accurate. If it’s determined that the information was knowingly inaccurate or that the source was otherwise dishonest, identify the source and do not use again.
  • Do not write stories based on stories from other news agencies that quote anonymous sources. Especially if those sources include celebrity gossip websites or supermarket tabloids.
  • But most of all: Use anonymous sources only when the information provided is vital to the story.

We have reputations to uphold. Anonymous sources are exceptions to the rule that should be used only when absolutely necessary. They’re not a loophole to be exploited when someone’s uncomfortable or a journalist is lazy.