A reader e-mailed recently urging less reliance on unnamed sources, believing it had increased and should be used rarely to avoid undermining confidence in reporting.
Confidential sources are critical to reporting in the public interest to ferret out information governments and companies want to keep secret. But they should not be used casually and efforts should be made to get the information on the record.
I wondered if the use of confidential sources had increased – and found in my unscientific search of current and old files, it had not. I searched for key terms in more than 10,000 staff articles for three separate years. It appears to be noticeably lower in the past 12 months.
There are lots of asterisks around this. It’s difficult to count precisely because there are various versions of articles and different terms used to describe confidential sources. But one reason for the drop in the most recent year is that in the other two years, there were key news events that accounted for higher numbers. In 2012, there were many stories about business deals that relied on confidential sources and, similarly, much more police and crime coverage. In 2017, the NAFTA talks regularly used confidential sources.
Although this year appeared to have a lower number overall compared with the other two years, the most recent period saw an increase specifically in the use of sources in national security and war coverage where full names of vulnerable people are occasionally not used to keep them safe. To a large degree, reliance on sources follows the major news of the day.
One reason behind the apparent drop in using confidential sources is The Globe and Mail recently set a higher bar for their use, a standard reflected in its updated Code of Conduct.
There must be explicit approval of a senior editor, who, along with the reporter, decides whether the use of a confidential source is justified. The essential questions to ask are: Is the information we want to publish in the public interest, and is the use of confidential sources the only way to reliably get it? Does the importance of that public interest outweigh the lack of transparency? Something that may be interesting to the public is different than a matter of public interest. The quality of the source should also be considered. Does the reporter have a long and trusted relationship with this individual? Have they been reliable and accurate in the past?
Note that The Globe does not describe these sources as “anonymous” because they are not. They are known to The Globe’s reporters and senior editors.
The code goes on to say that the use of sources must be about getting vital information “not opinion or speculation or ad hominem criticism.”
There were similarities in all three years. The top two categories of stories using confidential sources remained the same: stories about business, including deals, and stories about governments, including all levels plus government-funded institutions, such as education and health care.
In my research, I saw a few older examples where the information provided by the source seemed not terribly significant and probably shouldn’t have been used. And one reference from a source seemed partisan and promotional.
The Globe’s standards also say a description must be included as to why confidentiality is allowed, but those descriptions can vary from clear to murky.
In an article about Afghan refugees trying to get to Canada, this description is clear: “The Globe is not providing Abdul and Masood’s last names because they fear for their safety.”
This wording is frequently used and for good reason: “The Globe is not naming the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly.”
This is because some organizations, including governments and groups such as, recently, Hockey Canada, try so hard to control their message that they allow few people (if any, at times) to speak publicly. What’s more, as reported by The Canadian Press, Canada is ranked “last in an international comparison of freedom-of-information laws – a hard fall after many years being judged a global model in openness.”
This is one reason The Globe has undertaken its Secret Canada project, which I wrote about last month.
Still, I would like to see more meat on the bone where possible to give readers a better sense of why and how the source has their information. Are they familiar with the deal? Are they an employee, senior or junior, a partisan official or subject expert? Sources may push back on divulging details if it would put their job in danger, but it’s worth a push to give the reader as much information as possible.
A recent Poynter newsletter explained why readers should be “willing to believe anonymous sources.” It referenced a Washington Post experiment from the pre-Deep Throat Days. As described in The Washington Post, “Faced with the Nixon administration’s manipulative use of off-the-record sourcing, then-executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee announced a no-more-unnamed-sources policy, banning any story based on one, according to Ben Bagdikian, at the time an assistant managing editor at the paper.
“As a result, Bagdikian wrote, ‘The Post’s competitors, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, published important news stories that The Post did not have. The paper’s readers were deprived of significant information. For a fierce competitor like Bradlee, that was intolerable.’
“And so the experiment was dropped – after two days.”