Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny. And of course, we do not include anonymous attacks posted on the Web in our reports.
As an ethical matter, we would not want to reveal the identity of an anonymous source unless that person has consented to the disclosure. That’s why we take the granting of anonymity seriously.
Keep in mind that the legal protection provided to journalists to keep source identities, outtakes, or other confidential information secret is not 100% secure. Courts can compel journalists to testify or reveal information even when confidentiality has been promised, and refusal to reveal the information can result in jail time or fines. Judith Miller of the New York Times, for example, spent three months in jail for refusing to identify the source of the leak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.
To make matters worse, if we have promised confidentiality to a source but disclose the source’s identity, we could be liable for breach of contract. In Cohen v. Cowles Media, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not protect the press from breach of contract lawsuits when a reporter breaches a promise of confidentiality.
It is therefore possible that if a journalist makes a promise of confidentiality but is later compelled to testify, s/he may either be jailed or ordered to pay money damages. Neither is a good situation. So consult with your supervisor and our legal team before you make a promise of confidentiality. Discuss whether the promise is necessary, what the exact scope of confidentiality will be, under what conditions the source might be willing to release you from the promise, and what the potential risks to you or NPR might be. We want to be sure we can keep whatever promises we make.
In today’s world, many contacts with sources are made online — via emails and social media sites. As we discuss in the guidelines about accuracy and transparency, NPR pushes to keep its interviews on-the-record. The same is true of our “virtual” interactions with sources. We make that clear to potential sources when we reach out to them.
When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we’re referring to. (Or we may refer to him or her without using a last name, if the source is comfortable with that degree of anonymity, and the situation meets our standards for granting anonymity. See the section on transparency for more.)
Although NPR journalists do agree to talk to sources on background when necessary, NPR’s strong preference is to have sources stay “on the record.” Before any such information is reported, reporters must make every reasonable effort to get it on the record — if not from that source, then from somewhere else.
We use information from anonymous sources to tell important stories that otherwise would go unreported. This is not a solo decision – the editors and producers of these stories must be satisfied that the source is credible and reliable, and that there is a substantial journalistic justification for using the source’s information without attribution. This requires both deciding whether it is editorially justified to let the person speak anonymously, and being satisfied that this person is who the piece says he is and is in a position to know about what he’s revealing. We should never be in the position of having to verify these things after a story has been broadcast or published.
Before we rely on information from anonymous sources, we press them hard on exactly what they know and how they know it — and we press them hard for as detailed a description as possible of who they are and their motivation (if any) to use in our reports. Our goal is to tell listeners and readers as much as we can about why this person is being quoted.
So, for example, “a senior White House official who was at the meeting and heard what the president said,” is the type of language we use. “An official” is not.
No attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. We don’t use such material in our stories, with rare exceptions. (If an individual is blowing the whistle on significant misdeeds or making an allegation of sexual assault, we may decide to air the person’s claims. But we would only make such a decision after careful deliberation with senior news managers.)
No disguises. We may withhold a source’s name who talks to us on tape or on the record, if that individual might be put in danger, legal jeopardy or face some other serious threat if their name is revealed. We may refer to the person without using a last name, if he or she is comfortable with that degree of anonymity and if we decide the situation meets our criteria for granting anonymity. But we don’t use pseudonyms to replace their real name.
No offers. Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.
Individual NPR journalists — reporters, producers, bloggers and others — do not on their own have the authority to assure any individual that information he gives us anonymously will be reported on our airwaves or by NPR.org.
For sure, sometimes in the course of reporting we gather important information that a source will only reveal if the conversation is “off the record.” But the decision as to whether that information will be reported by NPR can only be made in consultation with an editor. As the level of importance of the information rises, so should the level of editor who is pulled into the conversation. There is no hard-and-fast rule. When in doubt, editors should always err on the side of caution and consult with the next person above them.
If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.
When a decision is made to use information that we have obtained from a source that must remain anonymous, we describe in as much detail as we can (without revealing so much that we effectively identify that person) how they know this information, their motivations (if any) and any other biographical details that will help a listener or reader evaluate the source’s credibility.
It is never enough to say “NPR has learned” something. It is not enough to report that “officials say” something, or that some detail is “reportedly” true. If it is important for listeners or readers to know, for example, what political party the source is from, we report that information. If it is important to know what agency the source is from, we report that. If it is important to know which side of an issue the source represents, we report that. We push to get as much detail as we can about how the source knows this information, and to get the source’s agreement to report as much of that detail as possible. Was she in the room when the meeting happened? Does he have a copy of the report? Did he participate in the investigation?
When we attribute information to anonymous sources, it is assumed that these are our sources and that we have obtained the information firsthand from them. If this is not the case, and we are referring to reports in other news outlets based on anonymous sources of theirs, we are meticulous about attributing the information to those other outlets and we describe as fully as possible who those sources are.