Always question sources’ motives

QUESTION: In All the President’s Men, I heard about the two-source rule on information that comes from an anonymous source. But I don’t hear about it much anymore and have even forgotten what it is, exactly! What is the “rule”, and is it actually followed by journalists today? Answer by Esther Enkin, executive editor, CBC News.

Deep Throat.  Back in the day, the days of Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, that phrase actually evoked a porn film. But since the heady days of The Washington Post versus the Nixon administration, it has come to mean the sine qua non of reliable secret sources.

In reality, Deep Throat was William Mark Felt Sr., a well placed FBI official. He was finally outed by Vanity Fair in May 2005.

Because the reporters couldn’t name him, or in any way give information that would hint at his identity, they needed to corroborate what he said. Since their bylines were on the story, the reporters were the ones who faced the consequences if their source was wrong.

One of the most fundamental principles we adhere to is credibility. It is a stretch to ask people to believe us on the basis of information told to us by someone we refuse to name or tell you anything about. So the value of a second, preferably on-the-record source should be quite obvious.

Investigative journalists spend a long time and a lot of effort cultivating their sources and building relationships. Having said that, you always need to question the motive. In the end, that might not matter if they are bringing you the real goods.

But if the source is an angry or disgruntled employee, how much spin are you getting? And how easily can that discredit your story?

An important principle of journalism is to see or know it first hand.  

When you can’t, find an eye witness. And then find another to see if the stories match. Because another fundamental principle is we get as close to the truth as we can.   

This is as compelling when dealing with a car accident as it is with  a major fraud.

But clearly the stakes are quite different.  

And the higher the stakes, the more you better be sure you have the whole story from more than one source.

If you want an object lesson of reliance on a single source leading to a pile of trouble, consider The New York Times’ coverage leading up to the Iraq war. Judith Miller had a source feeding her stories about weapons of mass destruction. That source was heavily invested in the notion of regime change in Iraq. After the fact, the Times admitted that perhaps they had relied on a single source a little too heavily.

Interestingly, several of the journalistic codes of major news organizations I checked (not an exhaustive search) are not precise about the two source rule.

No wonder.

In the age of the blog, when two sources are two other blogs asserting something, the competition to get it out there is vicious.

It isn’t only for that cynical reason of course. It is because, like most things in this business, there’s often a judgment call. It is about the value of the information, what other corroboration is available, and really how good the source might be.  

We owe our readers, listeners and viewers as close to the truth we can get.

But sometimes there is such value in telling them what we know so far, we might stretch that second source rule.  

In any case where there is an anonymous source used, here’s another rule: Always provide as much information as you can about your source.

A source “in the Department of National Defence,” for instance, is much more useful than “government sources.” The more information you can provide, the more those receiving it can make up their own minds.

Best practices are to always go with two sources. If you have to go with one source, it is much better to name. More importantly, you have to check and recheck the quality of the information.  

Ask yourself the hard questions, including one about how else you can check the information, more than once. Someone spinning a story hides behind your commitment to protecting identity. You, on the other hand, are left hanging.  

If a strong ethical sense isn’t enough motivation to follow the rule, that should be!
Esther Enkin was appointed executive editor of CBC News in 2008, a role which includes overseeing policy and standards, developing policy and ensuring CBC’s journalistic standards are met nationally and regionally. She has worked in radio and television at CBC since 1975. She was a founding member of The Journal, and went on to be a documentary field producer.  Several of her productions won international awards.