What are the considerations in using confidential sources in the Star?

By Kathy English, Toronto Star Public Editor

An important reader question about trust in the Star: “I am curious what steps a journalist might take to verify what they are told by a confidential source. I can understand the need for confidential sources in the media, but, as a reader I generally put a little less faith in what is attributed to an anonymous source. How would you generally, decide if a source who wants to remain confidential is reliable?”

The Star’s policy on anonymity states that, “The public interest is best served when news sources are identified by their full names.” When that is not possible and confidential sources — individuals who are not named in the Star — are used in reporting information deemed to be of public interest, the Star’s reporters must take steps to determine the reliability of these sources. This is responsible reporting. In all cases, reporters, and most often their editors too, know the identities of sources granted anonymity in the Star.

Given the ongoing debate about the use of confidential sources in covering Donald Trump’s administration, I have asked the bureau chiefs of the Star’s three Canadian political bureaus to provide their insights on the reader’s question as it pertains to the Star’s political and government coverage. Here are their thoughtful responses.

Bruce Campion-Smith, Ottawa bureau chief

“First off, a confidential source is generally someone we know very well and have a track record with and built on a relationship usually over years. We’ve assured ourselves that they are in a position to know the information they are giving us and that they have a track record of playing straight. Remember the trust cuts both ways. Not only do we have to trust them but they have to trust us.

The source has to absolutely be in a position to know what they are talking about. No second-hand information or gossip. A bottom line is that any information gleaned this way must be fact-based. We don’t allow someone to anonymously trash another individual. That’s just a cheap shot.

Continue reading this on the Toronto Star website, where it was first published. 

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.