QUESTION: When is it alright, if ever, to reveal a confidential source? What if the source has knowingly fed you incorrect information, perhaps to discredit someone?
Answer by Harvey Cashore
It is almost never okay to reveal a confidential source.
Almost everyone who has considered this issue asks the philosophical question: “What if the source is about to commit a violent crime and tells you not to reveal him or tell anyone”? Do you reveal the source anyway and break the confidence in order to make sure no one gets hurt? The answer is obvious: Of course you do. But I consider this an academic question that rarely, if ever, applies to the kinds of confidential sources most investigative journalists deal with.
To answer your question “What if the source has knowingly fed you incorrect information, perhaps to discredit someone?” let me get there this way:
I think journalists sometimes confuse our responsibilities to report the truth with the responsibilities of the source. As journalists we want to arrive at the truth by speaking to as many people as possible. We want to create an environment where sources feel comfortable speaking with us. For me that often means treating an interview subject as a confidential source. The source is told he or she is free to say whatever they want without the fear of being quoted as having said it.
This kind of protection does not mean, however, that I will report anything the confidential source says. In fact it means the opposite.
Our job, as investigative journalists, is to find out if the source is telling the truth, or the complete truth, not simply to report what someone says. And, to borrow a thought from John Milton, the best way for an investigative journalist to arrive at the truth is to have a free flow of information upon which he can assemble and best assess the facts.
This approach takes a lot more work. It means we are no longer interested in quoting someone as a “source who refused to be named” but rather we are interested in arriving at the truth of the matter. To me, a legitimate news headline should not refer to unnamed sources but rather to new informaiton that the reporter has found to be true. In other words, the journalist should put the responsibility on himself or herselt to report the truth and not on the source. We should find out if a source is telling us the truth before we report a story, not after.
For me, this approach means that the question you pose need not be considered at all.
However, if we were to consider it on its own, I would say that we get into dangerous territory when we decide we will reveal a source because they fed us “incorrect” information and are trying to “discredit” someone. A source may actually feel they are providing us with correct information that later turns out to be false, or they may be giving us information which is partly true but not the whole picture. Or indeed, they may be misleading us to further their own objectives. But how does a journalist go about determing a) if a source misled him and b) if the source deliberately misled him and c) if the misleading information warrants a public betrayal of a source? By agreeing that a journalist should reveal a source in the above circumstances, I can envision a scenario where a journalist might be tempted, after reporting a story with false information, to claim it was the source’s fault, that the source “misled” him or her and therefore the source should be revealed.
I would argue that this argument is backwards. It shifts responsibility from the journalist, where it belongs, and onto confidential sources, who are crucial to the discovery of new information that is often vital to the public interest.
We need to create an environment where a source understands he or she will never be revealed. We know the sources will have flawed information, part of the story, they will have heard rumours that are true, rumours that are false, and they will have their own agendas, legitimate or not. But by assembling as much information as we can by speak to as many people as we can, we will arrive at the best version of the truth possibe. And we simply could not get there if a source thought we might somehow reveal them if we didn’t think everything they were saying was one hundred per cent accurate.
So, in short, no. Don’t blame your source when you get facts wrong.
Investigative journalist Harvey Cashore is a Senior Editor with CBC’s the fifth estate.