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