Why the Hamilton Spectator revised its code of conduct on anonymous sources

Photo courtesy of Eric Mark Do

By Jim Poling

At the Hamilton Spectator, our newsroom, like many across the country, has had much discussion about the use of anonymous sources.

Photo courtesy of Eric Mark Do

By Jim Poling

At the Hamilton Spectator, our newsroom, like many across the country, has had much discussion about the use of anonymous sources.

We have a lot of experience with the subject of anonymous sources. In 2004, one of our reporters was convicted of contempt by the Ontario’s Superior Court for refusing to disclose the identity of a confidential source and he was fined $31,600. Our code of conduct was last updated in 2006, so it was time for renovations—specifically in terms of how we use anonymous sources.

The existing policy consisted of only four sentences, including the concluding sentence that said, “When we use unnamed sources for contentious information, we explain to readers why the person’s identity is being withheld, and we make every effort to corroborate the unattributed information.”

It offered fine guidance, but much has changed since those words were inked. The information revolution continues, there are new storytelling forms and platforms and the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled on the issue, stopping short of giving journalists a total shield, but offering limited protection of confidential sources.

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We had a staff discussion in October and I examined policies on this subject at newsrooms in Canada and the U.S. I then created an online survey for Spec staff on the issue. I wanted to construct a policy with heft, but knew full well the issues we face are not always clear cut. The survey allowed me to get a sense of the culture and thinking of journalists at a large regional daily. We looked at the following questions:

  • What does a promise of confidentiality mean?
  • What does such a pact involve? What are the parameters of such a deal, who is notified and how is that deal outlined?
  • When it comes to such a deal, what is the role and relationship between reporters and editors? Who decides to grant anonymity?
  • When can such a pact be annulled and by whom?
  • What are the legal implications of such pacts?

Our newsroom didn’t have a single vision or clear understanding of the complexities of sourcing, which underscored the need for our ethics guide to be updated. The survey results were interesting.

Of the 53 per cent of Spec staff who responded, 97 per cent believe journalists should use anonymous sources, but only when it meets the provisions laid out in our ethics guide. Chief among them:

  • A pact is between the newspaper and its readers. The decision to shield a source’s identity is granted by the paper, not an individual.
  • There must be a clearly defined reason to grant confidentiality and it must be in the public interest.
  • We press for details and refrain from “casual” sourcing.
  • We need to be as transparent as possible and must make every effort to corroborate information.

Click on the images to zoom in.

Illustrations courtesy of associate editor Tamara Baluja

During our staff discussions, editors and reporters had a long back and forth about editor-reporter conversations and the necessary tension in those relationships. It’s a reporter’s role to push for information and an editor’s job to push back and test the information and how it was obtained. Our survey showed 87 per cent of respondents felt an editor at some level needs to know the identity of a source or sources.

More interesting is how a source deal is made or brokered. A small majority, 53 per cent to be exact, felt reporters should not be able to broker a pact with a source without consulting an editor. That means nearly half of the reporters asked felt they should be able to make a deal without consultation.

Our survey and subsequent revision to our ethics guide also spent time looking at casual sourcing, which I believe is where much anonymous sourcing abuse takes place and where our industry needs to do more work.

Investigative journalism involving anonymous sourcing generally gets much attention from various editors and lawyers. But casual sourcing is another matter. It’s routine, lazy and dangerous. Often, in newspapers in Canada and the U.S., I read routine stories involving casual sourcing for witness accounts, description or colour quotes and this kind of attribution, or lack of it, flies under the radar and is not challenged. An example: a reporter is at a fire scene and gathering quotes: “’I heard three loud bangs, like pop, pop, pop,,” said one man at the scene.”

Is that information in that quote colour? Are they facts that are important to the fire? Who is this man and why is he there? We don’t know and that’s why I believe we must demand more information. If a source won’t give his or her name, reporters should ask why. They should attempt to get as much information about the person as possible: description, maybe a photo or video, type of car, licence plate of car. The information is all around us.

In today’s new era of accountability, information moves extremely quickly and it is easily sourced and tracked. It’s too much to ask readers to have blind faith in news reporting.

As journalists, we demand transparency from many corners—government at all levels, businesses and even service groups. We want to know how decisions are being made, what facts are available and how the process unfolded. Should we not demand the same transparency of ourselves? If newspapers are to carry the mantle of trusted truth-tellers, there is a reasonable expectation that readers be told what motivates a source to disclose information, why the information is on background and how well-positioned the source is in relation to the information being offered.

After looking into codes of conduct and ethics policies around the use of anonymous sources at newspapers around the country, I found as an industry we treat the issue as a combination of codified policy meets best practice meets free-range thinking. In some cases we have concrete policies while others are guided by case-by-case decision-making. That’s not good enough for an industry and profession that prides itself on truth, accuracy and fairness.

When it comes to guidelines for using anonymous sources, some papers post their written codes of conduct online. In other newsrooms, the convention for covering source conversations is written, but difficult to find.

We need deeper conventions in our newsrooms around source conversations and granting anonymity.

Our industry is not governed by a regulatory body and there is no single code or set of regulations that covers use of anonymous sources. We answer to our internal governance systems, our readers and, possibly, a press council (in which membership is voluntary).

I don’t believe it’s good enough anymore simply to say, “a source said,” “sources say,” “on background” or the many variations of the same. Editors should demand more disclosure from their reporters, and reporters need to push their sources harder for details on disclosure. It makes for better reporting, strengthens our credibility and separates the work that professional journalists do from a growing class of other information keepers and disseminators who increasingly call themselves journalists.

It’s important we ask for whom are we writing: Ourselves? Our bosses? Inner circles? Or for the broader public? It is important for reporters to establish relationships and credibility with sources, but the main goal is reporting a story.

That’s why our ethics guide at the Spec, like others I’ve seen, says a source pact is a deal between the newspaper and its readers.

Jim Poling is managing editor of The Hamilton Spectator. He is a prospective master of journalism candidate at Durban University of Technology in South Africa. His research work and dissertation focuses on newsroom leadership and anonymous sources.


Read the Hamilton Spectator's ethics guide on anonymous sources:


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