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Guidelines for dealing with confidential sources

Avoiding landmines when dealing with confidential sources was the focus of one of the panels highlighting a joint workshop held last week by IRE and the Canadian Association of Journalists.

More than 90 journalists gathered at the Ryerson University School of Journalism to learn more about key issues facing journalists on both sides of the border, from the environment and terrorism to using open records laws and finding relevant data online.

The confidential sources panel, featuring three journalists and a media lawyer, provided practical advice in how to deal fairly with sources who request confidentiality while not getting into legal or ethical trouble.

Josh Meyer, of Medill National Security Journalism Initiative and an IRE Board member, offered a number of practical tips, including:

  • Know the lengths your news organization will go to protect you and your source before promising confidentiality. If your organization has a policy, make sure you understand it.
  • Will your bosses require you to tell them your source’s identity? Will they share it with their bosses or others within the organization? Will they protect your from having to turn over notebooks, computer files, etc.?
  • Establish ground rules with your source up front. 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.

Canadian media attorney Bert Bruser offered his own guidelines, including:

  • Don’t write the source’s name in your notes. Try not to have it in your email.
  • If you’ve got documents with the sources name on them, get rid of them.

Bruser described the steps the Toronto Star takes before allowing a confidential source to be used in an article, including a meeting at which the reporter is questioned by editors and an attorney on areas including why the source came forward and what the reporter’s relationship is with the source.

“If the editor decides the source is believable, we’ll publish the story,” Bruser said.

But he stressed that once anyone at the paper knows the source’s identity, they must protect that person. “Once you commit to a promise to protect a source, you have to keep that promise, no matter what the law might do to you.”

When possible, panelists said, use anonymous sources to point you toward key documents, data or story ideas, without having to quote them or refer to them in your work. Kevin Donovan, a reporter for the Toronto Star, said that is most typical kind of confidential source.

“Those, hopefully, you only use to get to the next step of the story,” he said.

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