Confidential sources must always be protected, panellists agree, but reporters need to know the rules of the game

November 11, 2011



Investigative journalists inevitably end up in sticky situations while dealing with confidential sources, Rob Cribb recently told a nearly full lecture hall at the Rogers Communications Centre.

“(Sources who do not want their names revealed in stories) are, in many cases, the only way to get at a matter of fundamental importance and they do so, most often, at personal peril,” said Cribb, who teaches a course on investigative techniques at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.

The panel on how to handle confidential sources was part of a workshop by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), hosted by The Canadian Association of Journalists Educational Foundation and Ryerson’s School of Journalism. Speakers included media lawyer Bert Bruser, who is also an adjunct professor of ethics and law in journalism at Ryerson; Kevin Donovan, investigations editor and senior reporter with The Toronto Star; independent journalist and founder of the Canadian Writers Group, Derek Finkle; and Josh Meyer of the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, who formerly reported for the Los Angeles Times.

“Once you commit to a promise to protect the source, you have to keep to that promise, regardless of what the law might do to you,” Bruser said.

His opinion was shared by the other panelists.

“I’m not a police officer. I’m not working for the state,” said Finkle, who noted that police have their own resources to fund investigations.

The panellists also stressed, however, that reporters must educate themselves before making any agreements with sources.

“Don’t buy a pig in a poke,” said Donovan. “Don’t agree to confidentiality with a source unless you know what the source is offering and who the source is.” If the source is indeed legitimate, he or she should understand and be willing to provide those details.

Meyer advised reporters to work out the technicalities of source – and reporter – protection before engaging in any sort of contract with a source. He suggested determining beforehand to what extent a news organization will support reporters who are under pressure from law enforcement or other authorities to reveal the identity of their sources. Other key questions include whether editors will ask for the source’s name and, if so, will they reveal it to those higher up on the corporate ladder?

“If the cops come in and try to take your computer, they might just say, ‘Yeah, it’s that one over there,’” said Meyer. Notes, documents, emails or files on computers can be subpoenaed by the courts and could expose sources if their names are in there.

Meyer noted that the United States has a shield law that helps protect journalists in that country from having to expose confidential sources. Canada has no such law.

“A shield law in this country would be nice to have,” Donovan said. “But in its absence, journalists have to do their due diligence before giving a promise and once a promise is given, they must stand by it.”

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