Credibility studies tell us readers hate unnamed sources. So why does the Star ever use confidential sources?

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

Credibility in journalism depends on readers believing what journalists report.

Numerous credibility studies have told us readers most believe news reports that fully identify sources and are likely to question stories that depend on confidential sources. Some studies make clear that readers hate unnamed sources in news reporting.

Certainly that is consistent with what readers tell me when the Star publishes stories that rely heavily on confidential sources. They want to know the names of sources so they can judge the credibility of who those sources are and the veracity of what they reveal to reporters.

The Star’s journalistic standards guide discourages anonymity in the news, stating that, “the public interest is best served when news sources are identified by their full names.” Knowing this, and understanding the importance of our journalistic credibility, why then does the Star ever allow the use of confidential sources in its reporting?

Simply put: reporters need confidential sources to serve readers. Democracy depends on these sources who tell journalists things that powerful people seek to keep secret. Many significant stories in the public interest could not be told if we could not report information from confidential sources.

Indeed, confidential sources are “a lifeline to the truth,” reporter Bob Woodward, one-half of the reporting duo whose investigation into the Watergate scandal brought about president Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation, told PBS’s Frontline in a 2007 report on “why reporters need confidential sources.”.”

Woodward’s partner, Carl Bernstein, expressed a similar view: “I know of very little important reporting of the last 30 to 40 years that has been done without use of confidential sources.”

We’re not talking about anonymous sources here. As Kevin Donovan, the Star’s investigative reporter and editor, made clear to me, “anonymous” does not accurately describe sources who won’t talk to reporters without assurances their name will remain confidential.

“Confidential sources is the correct term,” said Donovan who has led the Rob Ford Star’s award-winning investigation into Mayor Rob Ford. “I always know who these sources are.”

So why does the Star use information from confidential sources?

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.