Every reporter eventually runs into a story so important that it’s worth getting the information on a confidential basis. But you’d better understand your news organization’s position on unnamed sources before you make any promises.
Many newsrooms require a supervisor’s approval before confidentiality can be ensured. That usually means the boss will need to know the source’s identity, and the source should be aware of that before making any deals. But how many others in your news organization will be told the name of your source? And how far will your bosses go to support a confidentiality agreement? Will they protect you from having to turn over notebooks or raw tape? Will they pay for your legal defense if you’re found in contempt for not disclosing the identity of a source?
At a recent IRE workshop, Josh Meyer of the Medill National Security Zone emphasized the importance of establishing ground rules up front that apply to both journalists and their sources. “Let them know that if you find at any point that they have lied to you or misrepresented the facts, the deal may be off,” he said.
Lawyer Bert Bruser, counsel to the Toronto Star, advised journalists to avoid leaving any paper trail that could identify a source. Don’t write the name in your notes, he said, don’t mention it in email, and get rid of any documents with the source’s name on them.
Better yet, don’t quote or refer to unnamed sources in your stories. Instead, “use anonymous sources to point you toward key documents, data or story ideas,” panelists said.
One other obvious piece of advice: make sure you and your source agree on what you mean by the words you use when discussing ground rules. I’m always taken aback by the number of journalists and officials who think “background” means “off the record” and vice versa. This glossary of interviewing terms covers the most common ground rules.
Be aware, too, of the perception by some PR professionals that there really is no such thing as “off the record” and who may be counseling the people they advise not to provide any information on that basis.