Best Practices and Tips for Using Confidential Sources

December 19, 2014

By Gill Phillips

Although many countries offer legal safeguards protecting journalists’ sources, those protections are often uncertain and cannot be presumed, such that ultimately source protection is a personal ethical issue for each journalist.

There are a number of important practical considerations for journalists who use confidential sources:

  1. You should always be in a position to positively assert that you agreed with the source that they would be a confidential source. Be wary of getting trapped into didactics around lesser offerings such as “off the record” or “unattributable.”
  1. It is the journalist’s responsibility to ascertain the veracity and reliability of their source.
  1. Confidentiality should not be used indiscriminately: while acknowledging that people will often speak more honestly if they are allowed to speak anonymously, whenever possible sources of information should be identified as specifically as possible in any publication, along with any suggestion that they have an axe of their own to grind; this ensures that readers can understand and make their own assessment of the reliability, veracity and knowledge of the source.
  1. In the post-Snowden world, where the NSA, GCHQ and others including the telecommunications giants have used their technical skills to ‘master the internet’, journalists need to be aware of the dangerously easy to trace technical trail that they can leave behind when communicating with a source: there is no point in asserting a right to protect a source if in reality the journalist is shining a spotlight on who they are.
  1. Journalists should be wary of getting too close to their source: it is ultimately for the journalist and their editor—not the source—to decide what to publish.
  1. Managing sources can be time consuming and complex. Early consideration needs to be given to the level of support, if any, that will be offered to the source: for example are their expenses going to be paid? Is there any other payment involved? Does that create Bribery Act problems? Ultimately, it needs to be remembered, if it is going to be necessary to rely on a source’s evidence in court, that it must not be tainted by allegations of inducements.
The Journalism in Europe discussion series within the “Strengthening Journalism in Europe: Tool, Network, Training” project aims to enhance debate and discussion on policy issues related to journalism, to raise awareness of violations to media freedom and pluralism, and to exchange best practices for journalists. Blog post submission by academics, journalists, media practitioners and professionals, civil society actors, policy makers are welcome.
This article was originally published as part of our Journalism in Europe: Discussion Series.