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Greenslade lecture notes: Sources

Why are sources important, and how does one deal with them?

  • Sources are sources for a reason -- they know things the rest of the world doesn't
  • Good journalism shouldn't be straight quoting a source; some analysis is needed.
  • Journalists as a conduit (sewage pipe)
  • Yes, they relay things, but good journalism should process the "sewage"
  • "Our single essential journalism aim is to try to tell the truth -- it also means we should never tell an untruth, or do anything that is likely to mislead."
  • This is frankly more important than any attempt at objectivity (though that's still something journalists should strive for)
  • How do remain impartial when we have multiple sources with different viewpoints, and especially with editors and others arguing a certain way?
  • Good reading: "The Elements of Journalism", Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
  • The essence of journalism is to build up the picture of the truth through one's sources.
  • Lippmann -- newsmakers must get over the "pictures in their heads."
  • The method is objective, not the journalist.
  • General problems people have with journalism isn't objectivity but accuracy.
  • Five core concepts:
  1. Never add anything that was not there before
  2. Never deceive the audience
  3. Be as transparent as possible about your methods and motives
  4. Rely on your own original reporting
  5. Exercise humility
  • Don't trick sources -- they won't be sources again.
  • Use single-sourcing regularly and with great care.
  • Even the most honest single source can be wrong, and it's not a story until you've receive a response from other stories
  • Blair funeral story
  • How do we ever get at the truth without sacrificing our principles? Is it ever justified to lie to a source, or use subterfuge? Are these tactics proportionate to the importance of the story? Is it justifiable to pay for information; to invade a person's privacy? Is it ever justified to reveal the identity of a source who wishes to remain anonymous and you've given your word to keep anonymous? How do we read between the lines when PR people want to give "guidance"?
  • Without people telling us things they know about, there wouldn't be many stories.
  • Many of these people wish to remain in the shadows and off the record
  • "Revelatory stories just wouldn't exist if we couldn't get people talking."
  • Sources have to believe we'll honour their right to anonymity.
  • Yet there's a tendency to overuse anonymous sources
  • In Britain, no journalist has the right to keep a source from the editor
  • Accept there's a need to expose your source to at least one other person.
  • Journalists must not use anonymity to exaggerate what's been said.
  • "When we accept off-the-record briefings, we enter into a contract of confidentiality with the source and we therefore publish in good faith. But if we find that we have been deliberately lied to, then any obligation of confidence is removed. Source have to know that the threat of exposure hangs over them." -- Jeff Randall, Sunday Times
  • Hard to get up-to-date sources and info from intelligence agencies; difficulty in dealing with spooks
  • "Sourcing is entirely unremarkable."
  • People in a non-journalistic world are already aware that they receive unattributable briefings that don't cause any trouble.
  • A father warning children mother's in a bad mood, "but don't tell her I said so." Parties concerned understand necessity of confidentiality.
  • Not that big of a leap to the level of secrecy journalists regularly use.
  • Gilligan Affair -- May 2003, claims that one of the justifications for war -- i.e., Saddam Hussein's ownership of WMDs -- was not as true as initially suggested, and certainly not within 45 minutes as suggested by Blair.
  • Andrew Gilligan suggests that he has a source believing the prime minister had "sexed up" the dossier that convinced Britain to go to war, the government knew Saddam didn't have them and couldn't deploy within 45 minutes.
  • Source (Dr. David Kelly?) was a biological weapons expert, would have been known immediately. Gave impression that source was in government (and not simply just a bio-weapons expert).
  • Kelly was so embarrassed by the situation he voluntarily outed himself to the MOD.
  • Was called before parliamentary committee and grilled hardcore; committed suicide afterward.
  • Gilligan dismissed from the BBC; based story on poor note-taking, misrepresenting source. Two senior BBC staff resigned.
  • Good reporter, good source, accurate information -- but mishandling was disastrous.
  • Watergate:, Deepthroat was never identified; just pointed them towards another source.
  • In Britain, most briefs can't be verified in this way.
  • Rules of thumb:
  • Is this a professional relationship or is it a friend?
  • Has this person given credible information in the past?
  • Can you check at least a bit of it?
  • Only two journalists in England have gone to jail in the last 60 years for refusing to reveal a source; one in Ireland.
  • 1963 -- period of incredible belief the USSR would bring down democracy. Spy found in British admiralty, Bassat.
  • Tribunal - asked where they got their sources. Two journalists sent to jail.
  • Senior judge: "There is no privilege known to law by which a journalist in front of an inquiry can refuse to answer the question of a judge."
  • Irish reporter wouldn't reveal an IRA member. Spent 4 days in jail, never named his source ever.
  • Tisdall Affair: In 80s, a envelope full of documents re: US nuclear weapons arriving on British shores and government reaction to protests was dropped on Guardian's front door.
  • Government demanded the documents, threatened to fine on a daily basis via contempt of court under the Official Secrets Act.
  • Eventually Guardian caved, gave documents. Source was found out, spent 6 months in jail.
  • Interbrew case:
  • Internal documents leaked, Interbrew wanted whistleblower. UK courts sided with whistleblower, eventually went to European Court of Human Rights. Interbrew eventually dropped case.
  • Goodwin case:
  • Journalist refused to reveal source, kept refusing to reveal source and was charged with contempt of court.
  • Went to the European Court of Human Rights, which sided with Goodwin under Article 10.
  • Guardian and Milly Dowler case:
  • Met tried to charge journalists under Official Secrets Act to reveal sources.
  • As a general rule of thumb, paying sources is not a good idea.
  • Naturally biases sources.
  • Will say what you want them.