Star public editor: Journalists, sources and informed consent

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

In his 2013 book, You Were Never in ChicagoChicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg describes “The Speech” he always gives to sources prepared to tell their stories in his popular column.

Steinberg’s speech is, he tells us, “a little preliminary warning I deliver to people who might not be fully cognizant, who might not be factoring in all the consequences of publicity:

“You understand I write for a newspaper. That I’m talking to you because I’m going to put what you say into an article, which will appear in the newspaper, which people will then read.”

What do journalists owe their sources and those they report on when seeking consent for an interview? Do these people clearly understand what they are getting into when they agree to talk to a journalist? Are all journalists as clear and explicit with their subjects and sources as Steinberg? Should we be? Or should we go further and seek to inform our sources of any potential risks of sharing their stories in the media?

Journalists report in the public interest and rarely discuss or debate what our responsibilities might be to those who talk to us, particularly those “vulnerable” non-expert sources with little understanding of the media and how journalists work.

I have spent considerable time examining these questions as part of a Canadian Association of Journalists ethics advisory committee panel on what constitutes consent in journalism. Our recently released paper “On the record: Is it really informed consent without discussion of consequences?” delves into how journalists gain consent for information from their subjects and sources, especially those who are vulnerable.

The committee, which included CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin and Julian Sher, senior producer of CBC’s the fifth estate, was chaired by Western University journalism professor Meredith Levine. It started from a premise that “sharing information with a reporter is not a risk-free act.”

This was a thought-provoking exercise. As we state in the paper, which is presented as a debate between Levine, arguing for one side, and Enkin, Sher and I, another, “We were caught between two really important competing values — serving the public interest and minimizing harm.

“Consent protocols felt like a rabbit hole that could undermine our ability to tell important stories.”

To continue reading this column, please go where it was originally published. 

Related content on J-Source: