Naming sources in your stories is good journalism and what readers have every right to expect. However, some sources may have different experiences with speaking to reporters on the record. Some come from cultures and societies where they may feel vulnerable or distrusting. We believe that quotes and examples with real names attached carry more weight, lend credibility to the reporting and increase public trust in New Canadian Media. Therefore, your sources must be prepared to speak on the record, and should be pressed to do so if they refuse. When such efforts fail, reporters must decide whether to proceed with the interview.
Do not compromise and agree to use pseudonyms, which appear contrived and are by their very nature misleading. Reporters have a responsibility to get informed consent from their sources and explain the freedoms under the Charter that exist in Canada. Speaking up for oneself or your community is an essential part of democracy.
That said, there are times when reporters need confidential sources to serve the public interest. For example, sources in government sometimes give journalists information that powerful people wish to keep secret and their identities may need to be protected in order to keep their jobs. Other sources, such as underage or other vulnerable people, may require anonymity to protect them from harm.
The use of anonymous sources should be a last resort and subject to the following conditions:
- They convey important information of public interest that cannot be obtained for attribution elsewhere;
- There is a clear and present reason to protect their anonymity.
- They are bringing facts to light, not voicing opinions or using our platform to make personal attacks.
- They must agree to be described as fully as possible. That includes: how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information, why we agreed to grant them anonymity and how they will be described in an article. Never just say “sources say.”
- We independently try to corroborate the facts with other people.
- Your editor must be told the name and full details before an anonymous source can be used.
In extremely rare cases, we may be ordered by a court to divulge confidential sources. Therefore, we must understand what we are promising. These promises should be clearly spelled out to the source so we can keep our word. The following interview protocols, if properly explained, may be helpful:
Not for attribution: We can quote statements directly but the source cannot be named, although a general description of his or her position should be given (“a government official,” or “a party insider”).
On background: We can paraphrase statements and generally describe the source, but we may not use direct quotes.
Off the record: We may not report the information at all, just use it to help our own understanding or perspective. There is not much point in knowing something if it can’t be reported, so this undertaking should be used sparingly, if at all.
- Try to confirm a source’s identity and position at the outset, or ask for a business card.
- If the source says he or she does not wish to be identified after the interview, ask why.
- Explain our policy about “on the record” and say that in some cases sources are helped directly by readers if they know who they are.
- Readers attach higher credibility to stories where sources are identified. If sources hide their identities, readers are apt to wonder if there are other facts they are hiding.
- Identifying sources goes to the heart of New Canadian Media’s practice of verification and transparency.
- If you think the source’s circumstances justify anonymity, discuss it with your editor and clearly spell out the conditions (see above) to your source. Example of a proper description: “a government source who has seen the documents and believes the information should be public but is not authorized to release it. Her identity is being shielded to protect her job.”
Our thanks to Prof. John Miller for drafting this guide.