- Sources are sources for a reason — they know things the rest of the world doesn’t
- Good journalism shouldn’t be straight quoting a source; some analysis is needed.
Journalists as a conduit (sewage pipe)
- Yes, they relay things, but good journalism should process the “sewage”
“Our single essential journalism aim is to try to tell the truth — it also means we should never tell an untruth, or do anything that is likely to mislead.”
- This is frankly more important than any attempt at objectivity (though that’s still something journalists should strive for)
- How do remain impartial when we have multiple sources with different viewpoints, and especially with editors and others arguing a certain way?
Good reading: “The Elements of Journalism”, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
- Don’t trick sources — they won’t be sources again.
Use single-sourcing regularly and with great care.
- Even the most honest single source can be wrong, and it’s not a story until you’ve receive a response from other stories
- Blair funeral story
- How do we ever get at the truth without sacrificing our principles? Is it ever justified to lie to a source, or use subterfuge? Are these tactics proportionate to the importance of the story? Is it justifiable to pay for information; to invade a person’s privacy? Is it ever justified to reveal the identity of a source who wishes to remain anonymous and you’ve given your word to keep anonymous? How do we read between the lines when PR people want to give “guidance”?
Without people telling us things they know about, there wouldn’t be many stories.
- “When we accept off-the-record briefings, we enter into a contract of confidentiality with the source and we therefore publish in good faith. But if we find that we have been deliberately lied to, then any obligation of confidence is removed. Source have to know that the threat of exposure hangs over them.” — Jeff Randall, Sunday Times
- Hard to get up-to-date sources and info from intelligence agencies; difficulty in dealing with spooks
“Sourcing is entirely unremarkable.”
Gilligan Affair — May 2003, claims that one of the justifications for war — i.e., Saddam Hussein’s ownership of WMDs — was not as true as initially suggested, and certainly not within 45 minutes as suggested by Blair.
Watergate:, Deepthroat was never identified; just pointed them towards another source.
- In Britain, most briefs can’t be verified in this way.
Rules of thumb:
- Is this a professional relationship or is it a friend?
- Has this person given credible information in the past?
- Can you check at least a bit of it?
Only two journalists in England have gone to jail in the last 60 years for refusing to reveal a source; one in Ireland.
Tisdall Affair: In 80s, a envelope full of documents re: US nuclear weapons arriving on British shores and government reaction to protests was dropped on Guardian’s front door.
- Government demanded the documents, threatened to fine on a daily basis via contempt of court under the Official Secrets Act.
- Eventually Guardian caved, gave documents. Source was found out, spent 6 months in jail.
- Internal documents leaked, Interbrew wanted whistleblower. UK courts sided with whistleblower, eventually went to European Court of Human Rights. Interbrew eventually dropped case.
- Journalist refused to reveal source, kept refusing to reveal source and was charged with contempt of court.
- Went to the European Court of Human Rights, which sided with Goodwin under Article 10.
Guardian and Milly Dowler case:
- Met tried to charge journalists under Official Secrets Act to reveal sources.
As a general rule of thumb, paying sources is not a good idea.
- Naturally biases sources.
- Will say what you want them.