Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Anonymous sources and news credibility

Categories: Journalism


He was the most famous anonymous source of all time, if that makes any sense. A lot of people still believe that if Deep Throat hadn't provided Woodward and Bernstein with crucial information, the Watergate cover-up would never have been reported, and Richard Nixon would have served out his second term as U.S. president. As it turns out, Deep Throat (later revealed to be former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt) played a critical role in verifying information the two reporters uncovered elsewhere, but that doesn't minimize his role in uncovering the biggest scandal in American political history.

I know a lot of our listeners and viewers bristle at the use of anonymous sources in our reporting. In fact, we wish we never had to. Public opinion research shows that their use - and over-use - affects the credibility of journalism, and this issue is a significant and ongoing one for everyone engaged in journalism. But we have to withhold the identity of sources on occasion, especially because of our role as a public broadcaster.

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society. Our ability to protect sources allows people with important information to come forward and expose matters of public interest. If we do not properly protect our confidential sources, potential sources will not trust us. This compromises our ability to expose abuses of power.

As I mentioned, we don't grant anonymity lightly. It's a principle of good journalism that the public be able to see the person making statements or allegations, so that they can decide for themselves the credibility of that individual. At the same time, some information is important enough that it's worth compromising that principle--somewhat--if that's the only way to get that information before the public.

Let me give you some recent examples of stories that could only be told, in part, by using anonymous sources. A nurse was willing to speak to CBC News about conditions in her hospital. She came forward as part of CBC's "Rate My Hospital" series and could provide important details and insights. But she feared that if her face appeared on camera or her full name was used in a radio or online story, she would face reprisals at work, even the loss of her job.

Cases like this arise on a regular basis at CBC News, as we work to provide Canadians with the original stories they won't find elsewhere and the depth and detail they expect from us. Often, the people with key information have something important to lose if they're seen to be sharing it with us.

That's why we have a set of rules, known as our Journalistic Standards and Practices, and a formal process, for dealing with such cases. When CBC journalists have a request not to name a source, they refer the matter to our Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, whose job it is to weigh the issue and see if it satisfies the JSP requirements

In the case of the nurse, the Director asks the journalist a number of questions. Are we confident that her information is accurate? Could we get it another way, say from someone else who wouldn't require concealment? Is there any ulterior motive? Is the nurse's fear of reprisal realistic? Can we verify the claims another way, or, as in the Watergate example, is our source corroborating what we've uncovered elsewhere? Once he has his answers, the Director makes the call. If it's a story with major implications, that decision is mine.

In this case, we decided that hearing directly "from the ward floor" was sufficiently important to respect the nurse's request to have her identity hidden, and that's how the story ran. Other, similar requests that very week were turned down, and our journalists had to find other ways to tell the story. It's all part of our effort to bring Canadians the best... and the most... news, according to our best-practice protocols.

That's just one recent example. Last season on Marketplace, we granted anonymity to a hospital cleaner who was concerned that cutbacks were jeopardizing the safety of patients. After the story was broadcast, a hospital group promised to overhaul its practices to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

This past season on the fifth estate, we agreed to conceal the identity of a longtime companion of Luka Magnotta, for the episode "Hunting Magnotta". The source feared retribution and loss of employment if his name and face were revealed His contribution to the show provided unique insight into the cold and narcissistic personality of Magnotta.

In that same piece, we obscured the identities of two people who 'hunted' Magnotta - online sleuths who tracked him and warned authorities about his behaviour. Their condition for participating in the story was to have their identities withheld - it's the only way they can continue to pursue their online work. One had been threatened online by someone she believed was Magnotta, who said he would "find her."

We concluded that in all these cases, the concerns about employment, harassment and safety, were real. Combined with the value of the information we couldn't have obtained in other ways, we felt the measures we took were justified. Some news organizations, particularly in the United States, have banned the use of anonymous sources, but I think our judicious use of them, backed by our extensive system of checks and balances, is necessary for us to provide you with the type and quality of journalism you've come to expect from CBC News.

Tags: How We Work, Policy

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