Serious journalism in the public interest requires courageous confidential sources.
By Kathy English for the Toronto Star
It would be ideal if every person who has something important – and largely, secret — to reveal to the public through the media about matters of public interest could be fully identified.
Clearly, readers would prefer that: numerous credibility studies tell us readers most believe news reports that fully identify sources and question those reports that rely heavily on confidential, unnamed sources. The Star’s journalistic standards guide reflects this, stating that “the public interest is best served when news sources are identified by their full names.”
That is a lofty ideal, however, and largely impossible for any journalist or news organization that vigorously pursues investigations in the public interest. The reality is that some sources who have vital information they believe the public should know often cannot reveal their identities to the public. They require anonymity and journalistic protection.
Sometimes these sources livelihoods are at stake; sometimes their personal safety; sometimes both. In order to reveal what they know, such sources need to know with all certainty that their identities will remain confidential to the public and that journalists could not be forced to turn over any information about them to legal authorities.
In Canada, journalists can and do promise some sources confidentiality and make clear that they are not in the business of turning information over to the state. But as things stand now, Canadian law does not fully support these critical journalistic promises.
That is why editors of news organizations across Canada went to Ottawa last week to express their support for an important Senate bill that aims to more fully protect confidential sources from unwarranted police intrusion.