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The challenge of confidential sources

Lynn Burgess is an award-winning producer at The National and the producer of "Getting Away with Murder," the CBC News investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's Rafik Hariri.

Our investigation started with one source; a source who told us right away "I can't be seen or heard on television."  But he talked, candidly and at length, about the problems within the UN's investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  As our research continued, we added many more sources, all of them intimately involved in the investigation, all of them unwilling to be seen or heard on television.

However, despite their insistence on remaining anonymous, our sources did agree to allow us to quote them in our reporting.  Using confidential sources is always controversial, and CBC does not do it lightly.  What's more, because we had so many confidential sources for this story, we wanted to be able to recreate the experience of actually hearing from these individuals, rather than just reading out a large number of transcriptions of their statements on screen.

CBC News has extensive policies that set out when these unusual practices and production techniques can be used.  (Editor's note: The relevant policies from the recently updated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices are reproduced below)  For that reason, a lot of discussion took place between the producers and executives here at The National and senior levels of CBC News management.

One internal standard that we applied was that if we could establish that to make public the identity of our source would put that individual in danger, we could justify concealing his or her identity from the public.  In this case, our sources were so concerned about protecting their identities that they would not allow even their voices to be heard.  They continue to work around the world on investigations, and they made it clear to us their lives would be in danger if they were to be identified.

A decision was also made to have the lines spoken to us by our confidential sources during our investigation delivered, verbatim, by actors on camera.  In the documentary, you will see that we have taken care to indicate clearly, each time one of these simulations is shown on screen, that the individuals shown are actors.  Again, this was done according to our CBC policy.

This is not a technique we plan to use often. But we think the risk to the sources, and the importance of the story, warrants it.  When you watch our documentary, listen in particular to what the actors are saying.  You are hearing the words of inside sources at the UN's investigation.  It's not something you hear very often.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices


Responsibility and accountability related to interviews

CBC takes responsibility for the consequences of its decision to publish a person's statements in the context it chooses. When we present a person's statements in support of our reporting of facts, we ensure that the statements have been diligently checked. In the case of comments made by a person expressing an honest opinion, we ensure that the opinion is grounded in facts bearing on a matter of public interest.

The interviewee also takes responsibility for his or her statement. As a general rule, we offer the interviewee no immunity or protection from the consequences of publication of the statements we gather.

Investigative Journalism

Protection of Sources - Granting Confidentiality

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.

We offer protection to sources based on such factors as: the potential impact and importance of the information on the lives of Canadians and its potential influence on public policy.

We also consider the extent of personal or professional hardship and possible danger the source may face if his/her identity becomes known.

We must make every effort to establish the source's credibility and find means to corroborate the information.

Once we have undertaken to protect a source, we ensure no details that could lead to identification are used on air. We are careful in the use of research material. We use the best technical tools to hide an identity for broadcast.

Whenever anonymity is granted, both the journalist and the source must be fully aware that this commitment extends to CBC as well, and is not merely limited to the journalist granting it.

There may be legal implications in granting protection. Journalists should be familiar with relevant regulation or seek legal guidance.

Before a confidential source is used in a story or a story is published based on the information provided, the managing editor must be told who the source is, and what the agreement entails.

Disclosure of sources within the journalistic line of responsibility should not be confused with public disclosure of sources.

Seniority of required approvals will depend upon the scope and scale of the story and its potential impact on people or institutions.

Identification of interviewees

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

Reconstitutions, simulations and generic scenes

A reenactment of an event must match the reality as closely as possible. When a reenactment is necessary for a proper understanding of the subject, we take care to be factually accurate, using transcriptions, minutes or official documents. We may use a transcript word for word or set the reenactment in the location where the actual scene occurred. To eliminate any risk that the audience will confuse the reenactment with the reality, we will ensure that the audience can clearly identify the reenacted scenes.

Other methods of illustrating a subject may attempt to describe a situation in general terms without pretending to be a precisely accurate rendering of reality. Such methods can be used, subject to certain conditions.

A simulated scene aims to evoke or give an impression of an event, its protagonists, their actions and the place where the event occurred. A simulated scene is produced and presented in a way that makes clear it is an evocation rather than a precise depiction of reality. If a risk of confusion remains, we advise the audience that the scene is simulated not real.

Generic scenes are commonly used in audiovisual production. These are often everyday actions like walking, answering the phone, looking at a document, closing a door. These scenes clearly serve as general illustration and in no way pretend to describe real facts precisely.