Journalism is the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience in a timely fashion. Though there are many variations of journalism, the ideal is to inform the intended audience. Along with covering organizations and institutions such as government and...
, a source
is a person, publication, or other record or document that gives timely information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...
. Outside journalism, sources are sometimes known as "news sources". Examples of sources include official records, publications or broadcasts, officials in government or business, organizations or corporations, witness
A witness is someone who has firsthand knowledge about an event, or in the criminal justice systems usually a crime, through his or her senses and can help certify important considerations about the crime or event. A witness who has seen the event first hand is known as an eyewitness...
es of crime, accidents or other events, and people involved with or affected by a news event or issue.
According to Shoemaker (1996) and McQuail (1994), there are a multitude of factors that tend to condition the acceptance of sources as bona fide by investigative journalists. Reporters are expected to develop and cultivate sources, especially if they regularly cover a specific topic, known as a "beat". Beat reporters must, however, be cautious of becoming too close to their sources. Reporters often, but not always, give greater leeway to sources with little experience. For example, sometimes a person will say they don't want to talk, and then proceed to talk; if that person is not a public figure, reporters are less likely to use that information. Journalists are also encouraged to be skeptical without being cynical ("If your mother says she loves you, check it out."). As a rule of thumb, but especially when reporting on controversy, reporters are expected to use multiple sources.
Using confidential information
Even if they cannot report certain information directly, journalists can use "off the record" information to uncover related facts, or to find other sources that are
willing to speak on the record. This is especially useful in investigative reporting. Information about a surprise event or breaking news
News is the communication of selected information on current events which is presented by print, broadcast, Internet, or word of mouth to a third party or mass audience.- Etymology :...
, whether on or off the record, is known as a "tip-off". Information that leads to the uncovering of more interesting information is called a "lead".
The identity of anonymous sources is sometimes revealed to senior editors or a news organization's lawyers, who would be considered bound by the same confidentiality. (Lawyers are generally protected from subpoena
A subpoena is a writ by a government agency, most often a court, that has authority to compel testimony by a witness or production of evidence under a penalty for failure. There are two common types of subpoena:...
in these cases by attorney/client privilege.) Legal staff may need to give counsel about whether it is advisable to publish certain information, or about court proceedings that may attempt to learn confidential information. Senior editors are in the loop to prevent reporters from fabricating non-existent, anonymous sources, and to provide a second opinion about how to use the information obtained, how or how not to identify sources, and whether other options should be pursued.
The use of anonymous sources has been a controversial subject for many years. Some news outlets insist that anonymous sources are the only way to obtain certain information, while others hold strict prohibitions against the use of unnamed sources at all times. News organizations may impose safeguards, such as requiring that information from an anonymous source be corroborated by a second source before it can be printed.
Nonetheless, prominent reports based on anonymous sources have sometimes proven to be incorrect. For instance, much of the O.J. Simpson reporting from unnamed sources was later deemed inaccurate. Newsweek retracted a story about a Qur'an being flushed down a toilet that led to riots in the Middle East; the Qur'an desecration controversy of 2005
The 2005 Qur'an desecration controversy began when Newsweek's April 30 issue contained a report asserting that United States prison guards or interrogators had deliberately damaged a copy of Islam's holiest book, the Qur'an....
was based upon one unnamed military source. The L.A. Times retracted an article that implicated Sean "Diddy" Combs in the beating of Tupac Shakur. The original article was based on documents and a large assortment of unnamed sources. When reporting on the original story, the Associated Press noted that "[n]one of the sources was named."
After the embarrassment, a news organization will often "clamp down" on the guidelines for using unnamed sources, but those guidelines are often forgotten after the scandal dies down. One study found that large newspapers' use of anonymous sources dropped dramatically between 2003 and 2004. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research group found use of anonymous sources dropped from 29 percent of all articles in 2003 to just 7 percent in 2004.
Not on tape
Whether in a formal, sit-down interview setting or an impromptu meeting on the street, some sources request that all or part of the encounter not be captured in an audio or video recording ("tape"), but continue speaking to the reporter. As long as the interview is not confidential, the reporter may report the information given by the source, even repeating direct quotes (perhaps scribbled on a notepad or recalled from memory). This often shows up in broadcasts as "John Brown declined to be interviewed on camera, but said..." or simply "a spokesman said...".
Some interview subjects are simply uncomfortable being recorded. Some are afraid that they will be inarticulate and make fools of themselves when the interview is broadcast. Others might be uncooperative or distrust the motives or competence of the journalist, and wish to prevent them from being able to broadcast an unflattering soundbite
In film and broadcasting, a sound bite is a very short piece of a speech taken from a longer speech or an interview in which someone with authority or the average "man on the street" says something which is considered by those who edit the speech or interview to be the most important point...
or part of the interview out of context. Professional public relations
Public relations is the actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promoting goodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc....
officers know that having the reporter repeat their words, rather than being on the air themselves, will blunt the impact of their words. The audience need not see or hear them being uncomfortable (if they have unpleasant news), and not being on air also allows them to be anonymous or identified only by title.
In journalism Attribution
is the identification of the source of reported information. Journalists' ethical codes normally address the issue of attribution, which is sensitive because in the course of their work journalists may receive information from sources who wish to remain anonymous. In investigative journalism
Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, often involving crime, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. Investigative journalism...
important news stories often depend on such information. For example, the Watergate scandal that led to the downfall of US president Richard Nixon was in part exposed by information revealed by an anonymous source ("Deep Throat") to investigative reporters Bob Woodward
Robert Upshur Woodward is an American investigative journalist and non-fiction author. He has worked for The Washington Post since 1971 as a reporter, and is currently an associate editor of the Post....
and Carl Bernstein
Carl Bernstein is an American investigative journalist who, at The Washington Post, teamed up with Bob Woodward; the two did the majority of the most important news reporting on the Watergate scandal. These scandals led to numerous government investigations, the indictment of a vast number of...
Divulging the identity of a confidential source is frowned upon by groups representing journalists in many democracies. In some jurisdictions journalists can be compelled by law to identify their sources, and journalists can and have been jailed for upholding this principle.
There are several reasons to protect confidential sources:
- In some cases serious harm might befall the source if their identity is uncovered.
- The willingness of other potential sources to share information with reporters may be eroded if confidential sources are identified.
- The public perception of journalistic integrity is damaged when assurances about confidentiality are breached.
- The so-called "chilling effect," which serves to dissuade sources in the future from stepping forward with unknown information for fear of reprimand or retaliation.
There are several categories of "speaking terms" (agreements concerning attribution) that cover information conveyed in conversations with journalists. In the UK the following conventions are generally accepted:
- "On-the-record": all that is said can be quoted and attributed.
- "Unattributable": what is said can be reported but not attributed.
- "Off-the-record": the information is provided to inform a decision or provide a confidential explanation, not for publication.
However, confusion over the precise meaning of "unattributable" and "off-the-record" has led to more detailed formulations:
- "Chatham House Rule(s)
The Chatham House Rule is a core principle that governs the confidentiality of the source of information received at a meeting. Since its refinement in 2002, the rule states:...
": Named after Chatham House
Chatham House, formally known as The Royal Institute of International Affairs, is a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in London whose mission is to analyse and promote the understanding of major international issues and current affairs. It is regarded as one of the world's leading...
(the Royal Institute of International Affairs), which introduced the rule in 1927:
- "When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed".
- "Lobby Terms": in the UK
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...
accredited journalists are allowed in to the otherwise restricted Members' Lobby
The Members' Lobby is a hallway in the Palace of Westminster used by members of the House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom...
on the basis that information received there is never attributed and events there are not reported. "Lobby terms" are agreed to extend this arrangement to cover discussions that take place elsewhere.
- "Not for attribution" (as described by the Canadian Association of Journalists
The Canadian Association of Journalists or L'Association Canadienne des Journalistes in French is one of several Canadian organizations of journalists. It was created to promote excellence in journalism and encourage investigative journalism...
). The comments may be quoted directly, but the source may only be identified in general terms (e.g., "a government insider"). In practice such general descriptions may be agreed with the interviewee.
- "On background" (Canadian Association of Journalists). The thrust of the briefing may be reported (and the source characterized in general terms as above) but direct quotes may not be used.
- "Deep background" This term is used in the U.S., though not consistently. Most journalists would understand "deep background" to mean that the information may not be included in the article but is used by the journalist to enhance his or her view of the subject matter, or to act as a guide to other leads or sources. Most deep background information is confirmed elsewhere before being reported.