A number of readers have raised questions about the journalistic ethics of The Globe in publishing its story about the Ford family on Saturday. Those questions are centred on the use of anonymous sources. Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse has written about why The Globe published the story, so let me deal in more depth with the issue of anonymity.
The Globe’s editorial code says reporters should strive to minimize the use of unattributed quotes. In routine matters, it says, sources must be prepared to speak on the record. “The use of anonymous sources should be the last resort and subject to the following conditions: (1) They convey important information that cannot be obtained for attribution elsewhere; (2) They cannot be used to voice opinions or make ad hominem attacks; (3) We must be diligent in describing sources as fully as possible. That includes: how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information, and why we agreed to grant them anonymity; (4) On request, an editor must be told the name and full details before an anonymous source can be used. …”
The Saturday article about the Ford family is clearly one of those rare times when anonymity is necessary to tell the story. It is not surprising that sources are not willing to be named in discussing their part in the drug trade. The article makes it clear that 10 people who grew up with Toronto Councillor Doug Ford, brother of Mayor Rob Ford, are the sources. They are described in the article as “a group that includes two former hashish suppliers, three street-level drug dealers and a number of casual users of hash.”
This level of detail is important in the story because you, the reader, need to understand – as much as possible – who is making these claims and what their background is. It is also important to know that the information comes from 10 people. When a major investigation is using anonymous sources, a reporter must judge whether the person is in a position to know, how credible he or she is and if he or she has something to gain from the information becoming public. In this case, when the sources are not the usual people a reporter might be dealing with daily (such as a political reporter covering a legislature or a police reporter talking to detectives), it is important to rely on as many sources as possible.
Some hard-hitting journalism must come from anonymous sources. The Globe and Mail and reporter Daniel Leblanc won several awards for reporting on the federal sponsorship scandal, which was launched after the 1995 Quebec referendum as Ottawa spent millions to boost its visibility in Quebec. The problem came to light when Mr. Leblanc started speaking with an anonymous source about how the money was actually being spent. While his work also included other information, the anonymous source was crucial. His stories were followed by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser’s reports detailing the massive spending abuses with $100-million of taxpayer money diverted from government coffers to Quebec ad agencies with close ties to the Liberal party in return for little or no work. Her report and Justice John Gomery’s later investigation were preceded by great journalism and anonymous sources.
It is worth noting here that after an effort to lift the veil on the whistleblower, The Globe defended the right to protect a confidential source. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that there are times when journalists need to have and to protect confidential sources. It heard a case in 2010 about Mr. Leblanc’s work on the federal sponsorship scandal and efforts made to unveil the whistleblower. Mr. Justice Louis LeBel said: “Some form of legal protection for the confidential relationship between journalists and their anonymous sources is required.”
Mr. Leblanc was also nominated for two national newspaper awards last year for his exposés on corruption at the Canada Revenue Agency offices in Montreal and for stories about political collusion in the Quebec construction industry. In both cases, anonymous sources were key.
In the 1990s, Globe reporters André Picard and Rod Mickleburgh broke the story of Canada’s tainted blood scandal, which saw at least 1,200 people infected with the AIDS virus because of tainted blood that was knowingly distributed. Those stories also included anonymous sources – bureaucrats, physicians, patients – who were afraid of repercussions. There were children with AIDS who could not be named because if their health was known, they would have been removed from school. Doctors were afraid of being fired. Many people came forward later when it was safe to do so.
The article about the Ford family is not tainted blood, sponsorship or Watergate, where The Washington Post’s key source, “Deep Throat,” remained anonymous for decades. But there are times when using anonymous sources is necessary. As the Editorial Code states: “In an ideal world, there would be no anonymous quotes. But sometimes, an important story cannot be obtained without protecting a source who risks retribution if identified.”
Comments on this article will be closed for legal reasons, but you can send me an e-mail at email@example.com if you want to discuss the issue.