Last week, a reader in Toronto raised an important point about the use of anonymous sources in an article on what he called "allegations of improper influence of Chinese officials over Ontario Minister Michael Chan."
In fact, many of you may see the phrase "sources say" in stories from time to time, and wonder what it actually means. Who are these sources and how do we know they are telling the truth?
This reader said that, "given the seriousness of the allegations against Minister Chan, I would expect The Globe and Mail to follow high standards of verification of the information provided by sources, particularly sources granted anonymity. Despite dozens of interviews with a 'myriad' of people in the Chinese community, only one quote from a member of the community is provided in the June 17 article, and it is provided with no supporting evidence."
The Globe considers anonymous sources a last resort, to be used only after reporters have exhausted all other ways to get the information on the record. Even then, anonymity is allowed only when the information is sufficiently important – not permitted for ad hominem attacks – and the sources must be described as fully as possible. That is why you will see "a senior government official" mentioned in some stories or "a source close to the mayor" in others.
The story about Mr. Chan was unassailably in the public interest. He is a senior cabinet minister and the article involved questions of undue influence by a foreign state that had been raised by the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
Something so important requires a thorough investigation, not just an official response from the Premier, who called the concerns "baseless." Mr. Chan calls the stories and the concerns expressed by CSIS ludicrous and has demanded a retraction and apology. (China is Ontario's second-largest trading partner and, since the allegations first surfaced, he has been promoted to oversee the international trade portfolio.)
The accusations also called for a reaction from the Chinese community in Canada, both pro-Beijing and those who oppose the current government. On any story, even our personal ones, we all hold one view of the truth, our truth. So the more views included in any major feature article, the better – and the closer we get to a complete picture.
I have received no complaints about the facts in The Globe's articles. While it would be helpful (although unlikely) to hear more from the head of CSIS on why they raised their concerns, readers will get a better understanding about CSIS in recent Globe commentary written by Charles Burton, associate professor of political science at Brock University and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
"We know that there has been a high frequency of telephone calls between Mr. Chan and China's Consul-General in Toronto," he observed. "If the Government of Canada knows what they were talking about, it is withholding this information for security reasons. But it is unlikely that CSIS would have approached the Premier of Ontario with its concerns … unless there was something that seriously concerned our people who monitor the activities of Chinese diplomats in Canada."
Reporter Craig Offman says he wrote the original story only after having interviewed dozens of people over a 10-month period. The story refers to many people in the Chinese-Canadian community who are concerned about Mr. Chan's views on China. Cheuk Kwan, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, spoke on the record but others preferred anonymity because they feared reprisals in their jobs.
Interviewing so many people over many months shows that The Globe's standards on sourcing were followed to the letter. Mr. Offman says he and his senior editors "felt confident, with the numbers of voices on a range of issues, that we could establish authority without additional quotes or attribution."
Journalists are keenly aware that anonymous sources are not ideal. They also know that, if anonymous sources lie or get key facts wrong, it is the journalists, not the sources, who end up with egg on their faces, or worse.
However, both the courts and the Ontario Press Council have said that there are times in news of public interest that such sources are necessary. In a 2010 ruling on the issue, the Supreme Court of Canada referred to a New York Times editorial, which argued: "In such [whistleblowing] cases, press secretaries and public-relations people are paid not to give out the whole story. Instead, inside sources trust reporters to protect their identities so they can reveal more than the official line. Without that agreement and that trust between reporter and source, the real news simply dries up, and the whole truth steadily recedes behind a wall of image-mongering, denial and even outright lies."