The perils of anonymous sources

Some of Canada’s most respected journalists and news outlets were played for fools in the Maher Arar case, tricked into printing lies about the Canadian engineer who was kidnapped in New York, then flown to Syria where he was tortured for almost a year.

Now the industry is out for blood, outraged that it was manipulated so skilfully, so repeatedly, and so publicly. Some want the news fraternity to chuck a basic tenet of its professional ethics and reveal exactly who smeared Arar, and how.

It’s an understandable urge, but it is wrong. Outing the anonymous sources who fed lies to the media would do reporters and their audience more harm than good. It would hurt Canada.

Journalism students are taught not to use anonymous sources, but there are exceptions: the whistleblower who will be fired if her identity is revealed; the sexual abuse victim who is ashamed to have his humiliation paraded in public; the person who risks real physical harm if his or her identity is known.

Anonymous sources have tipped reporters to some of the biggest stories of the last few generations. Without anonymous sources, Richard Nixon might have served out his presidency in the United States; abusive priests might still be running the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland and Canadians would never have learned the depth of the adscam scandal that brought down prime minister Jean Chrétien.

All of those stories were possible only because reporters promised sources that they would not reveal their identity to readers, viewers – or officials.

In most cases, reporters only use anonymous sources to guide them toward information that can be verified elsewhere. That practice has gradually changed, as professional spin doctors seek the protection of anonymity to discuss anything even slightly controversial.

Some journalists now want to change the rules. They want reporters to promise only a qualified protection to anonymous sources. They want reporters to say, “I won’t tell anyone who you are, unless I later decide that what you told me was not true, or told me the information in bad faith.”

That won’t work for three reasons. The first is practical. Try explaining to someone who is already terrified of telling you a hidden truth that you might keep their identity secret, but can’t promise it absolutely. The second is public relations. Whistleblowers with important information and pure motives will be discouraged from coming forward if they hear about reporters burning sources after the fact.

The third is legal. Reporters, editors and publishers have fought for decades for the legal right to shield the identity of anonymous sources. Lately, that battle has not gone well. Hamilton reporter Ken Peter was fined $31,600 for refusing to reveal a source in court. In San Francisco, two reporters have been sentenced to 18 months in jail for refusing to name a source that helped them uncover a steroid scandal among pro athletes.

Revealing the identity of unethical sources will hamper the ability of reporters to protect the identity of deserving sources. It will be much harder for lawyers to argue that reporters should not have to reveal the identity of sources to a judge, if other reporters are outing sources at will.

The real problem in the Maher Arar case was not journalism ethics, but human greed. Journalists like to break stories; some even need to break stories. Getting on the front page can be an almost physical thrill. Do it frequently, and the reward is money in the bank: bonuses, promotion and merit pay.

Politicians, bureaucrats, police, marketers, activists and a large army of communication advisers have learned to exploit that greed for their own advantage, leaking everything from policy directions to political smears behind the cloak of anonymity.

Want to gauge public opinion about a new tax hike without actually taking responsibility for it? Leak it. Want to smear your political opponent without looking mean? Leak it. Want to make Arar look like a bad guy even when you know he’s not? Leak it.

There is a false air of innocence in the media analysis of the Arar case. Some journalists are indignant that people lied to reporters, outraged that sources leaked information with intent to spin and manipulate public opinion.

Please. That is part of the game, one that every veteran journalist well understands. It is the job of the journalist to sift through the offerings and determine what is real.

The bottom line is that journalists should not print information by anonymous sources unless they are completely convinced it is true, for it is the reputation of the journalist – not the source – that is on the line.

The lesson of the Maher Arar debacle is not that reporters should expose duplicitous sources. The lesson is that reporters should use anonymous sources far more carefully, and far less often.

There is no immediate sign that lesson has been learned.

The same day that Arar accepted $10.5 million and an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canadian Press put out a story saying that Arar would stay on the U.S. no-fly list because of his “personal associations and travel history.” There were no details about the associations or travel. And the source?

A senior state department official who asked not to be named.


Kelly Toughill is an assistant professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax and a former writer and editor at the Star.

Published Feb. 3, 2007. Reprinted by permission.